Not just for the birds

Federal bird conservation efforts may have far-reaching effects on the environment

November 11, 2013

What’s good for the goose is good for the gander – and may be good for other organisms too.  It turns out that a series of recently approved federal conservation projects designed to aid birds may benefit more than just our feathered friends.

Two months ago, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved a list of initiatives aimed at conserving a total of 157,000 acres of migratory bird habitat using funding from the federal Migratory Bird Conservation Fund and the North American Wetlands Conservation Act U.S. Standard Grants program. The habitats, which are spread across 16 states from California to the East Coast, are mostly wetlands home to a variety of plants and animals including waterfowl, fish, turtles, frogs and snakes.

The projects will add 42,000 acres of land to the National Wildlife Refuge System and will fund the restoration and enhancement of the remaining 115,000 acres. Restoration efforts include converting farmland back into natural wetlands, improving water flow and preventing commercial or agricultural development of the habitats.

Urban sprawl is “eating away like a cancer at natural habitats,” said Ken Rosenberg, director of conservation science for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, NY. Rosenberg identified habitat loss as the greatest current threat to migratory birds. He said wetland habitats are crucial to many migratory waterfowl, making the new conservation efforts important to the birds.

The new initiatives have greater potential than many people realize, though. Leakhena Au, who directs grants for bird conservation for the Fish and Wildlife Service, said the projects will benefit the environment in a variety of ways beyond protecting birds.

“Our projects benefit all sorts of fish and wildlife,” Au said, citing salamanders, fish and turtles as examples. Wetlands are important ecosystems because they house so many different species, so protecting them is a major priority for national conservation agencies.  “We’re in a phase of expanding [conservation] to all birds and all wildlife and all habitats, but there’s still a major emphasis on wetlands because they are so fragile and continue to be lost,” Rosenberg said.

Protecting birds may help the environment in other ways as well. Observing birds can help scientists make judgments about the condition of the ecosystems in which they live. “Because birds are so conspicuous… they are really good indicators of the health of the overall environment,” Rosenberg said, “So declines in bird populations usually signal other trouble in the habitat.”

Humans also stand to benefit from the newly approved projects. Wetland habitats filter water, reduce water runoff and prevent flooding in human communities.

“[Wetlands are] very important to the overall quality of the healthy environment,” said Geoff Lebaron of the National Audubon Society. According to Lebaron, the significance of wetland habitats has been historically under-appreciated, making their present-day conservation all the more important. “In the middle part of the 20th century, swamps were viewed as a place where you dump everything – garbage, chemicals, etc.,” Lebaron said. “And then of course it very much affects the water supply of the surrounding human communities.”

Although thousands of acres of habitat will benefit from this year’s initiatives, the future of conservation in the United States depends on continued federal funding. “If you look at the amount of funding that’s dedicated to conservation of migratory birds and other species as well, it’s dwarfed by what we spend on other programs,” said Amanda Rodewald, director of conservation science for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Rodewald said citizens should care about the future of these conservation efforts because “what we want to do with migratory birds aligns well with what we as a society need from these landscapes and ecosystems as well.”  Conservation-minded citizens can help out by buying “duck stamps,” which are stamps issued by the federal government that grant the buyer privileges such as entry to national wildlife refuges. Proceeds from the sale of duck stamps go into the Migratory Bird Conservation Fund, which contributed significantly to the recent habitat restoration projects.

Au emphasized that U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services have benefitted millions of acres of land across the country and will continue to do so with available funding. “A lot of the areas that we’ve worked in, we have helped build huge complexes of protected and restored habitats, and that benefits everything,” she said. “From what I’ve seen, when you kind of travel the country, almost every major wetland has been touched by our program.”

About the Author

Chelsea Harvey

Chelsea Harvey is a recent graduate of Auburn University, where she received a B.S. in zoology, as well as minors in English and Spanish. Unable to choose between her love of science and her love of writing, she spent most of her free time as an undergrad working for her campus newspaper while simultaneously memorizing hundreds of scientific names for class. Outside of SHERP, her interests include playing music with friends, traveling and keeping up with international affairs.


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