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May 2009 cover image eastern screech-owl

From the Pen of Carter P. Smith

For some, "The State of the Birds," may evoke remembrances of an old Alfred Hitchcock movie of some former renown. Don’t let the title fool you, although some of the contents may elicit similar feelings of fright among those of you who like to pursue birds as a quarry for your optics, lens or game bag.

The State of the Birds synthesizes 40 years of biological data on the nation’s bird populations and distributions across major habitat types such as wetlands, grasslands and forests. Published by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in partnership with a suite of natural resources agencies and conservation organizations, the report summarizes information from long-term data sets such as the North American spring waterfowl surveys, the North American breeding bird survey, and Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count. In the aggregate, the report offers the most comprehensive baseline of where we stand with respect to the conservation needs of our avian species and their habitats.

Let’s start with the good news. Thanks to considerable work by many partners, some former imperiled species such as the bald eagle and peregrine falcon are doing quite well. So, too, are many species of hunted waterfowl. In fact, 39 species of waterfowl have experienced population increases of over 100 percent in the last 40 years. Through a combination of dedicated funding from waterfowl hunters, strategic management actions applied throughout their breeding and wintering ranges, and longstanding public and private sector investments in wetlands restoration and enhancement, our nation’s waterfowl conservation program is a model for what works.

I wish the same were true for many other avian species. Take grasslands for example. Forty-eight percent of our grassland birds, such as the formerly ubiquitous meadowlark, are listed as of "conservation concern." Bobwhite quail, arguably the most majestic and sought after of Texas game birds, have declined by 75 percent across its range in the last 40 years. The lesser prairie chicken, a denizen of the Texas Panhandle, is most likely headed for the endangered species list. Two percent or less of our native tallgrass prairie habitat remains. That which does is fragmented and plagued with heightened land use pressures.

The report’s findings for birds that are dependent on arid lands and forestlands, two other prominent habitats in Texas, had similarly dispiriting statistics. So did pelagic birds that reside in our oceans and migrating shorebirds that depend on our coastal wetlands, marshes and barrier islands.

All that being said, hope should not be lost. I find it every day in the work Texas Parks and Wildlife biologists are doing to promote conservation practices on private lands, their efforts to ensure federal farm bill programs maximize conservation benefits to wildlife, the prescribed burns, wetlands restoration, invasive species control, and other habitat management practices they apply to our wildlife management areas and parks, their many partnerships to recover endangered and threatened species, and the research they pursue in concert with a host of university and external partners.

You, too, can be a part of these conservation efforts. Start by familiarizing yourself with the report at www.stateofthebirds.org. As none other than Teddy Roosevelt once said, "There can be no greater issue than that of conservation in this country." I hope you will agree that our lands, waters, fish and wildlife are much too precious to suffer from inattention.

Thanks for caring about Texas’ wild places and wild things. They need you more than ever.

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