Minnesota birds make list of threatened 'tipping point' species

A northern pintail floats in the water
A northern pintail duck
Photo by Brad Imhoff, Cornell Lab | Macaulay Library

A new “U.S. State of the Birds” report is out this week with some good news and a dire warning.

Bad news first: Half of the nation's bird species are in decline, with nearly 200 that could soon become endangered. The good news: Wetland restoration has helped waterfowl species rebound and offers a clear roadmap for future conservation efforts.

Dale Gentry, conservation manager with Audubon Minnesota, joined All Things Considered Wednesday to talk about the report and what it says about bird species in Minnesota.

Click play on the audio player above to hear the conversation, or read a transcript of it below.

I want to start with the why. For those of us who may not be bird experts or even bird watchers, why are bird populations important to track and protect?

Birds are great indicators of the environment. They're bellwethers for how things are going, and so when when birds are struggling, we can kind of intuit that things are going to be rough for us as well. They need the same things we do: healthy water, clean air and a healthy environment.

What can this report tell us about the bird populations here in Minnesota?

This is the first [update] after a big report that came out in 2019 that helped us understand that North America has lost almost 30 percent of its bird population. So one in four individual [birds] have been lost since 1970, so in about 50 years. We went from [about] 12 billion birds to about 9 billion.

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What is driving that?

Well, there are lots of factors. Probably the biggest concern is the loss of good habitat. In addition to climate change, we've come in and we've developed a lot of the land and modified it through through logging, through farming and through housing developments. Those are not all inherently bad things, but we want to find that happy place where humans can thrive and the birds can thrive along with us.

The report talks about tipping point species that are on the road to endangered status. Are any of those here in Minnesota or the Upper Midwest?

About 70 species have lost half of their population since 1970 and are expected to lose another half of their population in the next 50 years if current trends proceed. And a number of them are in Minnesota species. There's a number of small little song birds that are especially found in grasslands, some familiar birds in urban environments like chimney swifts that we have circling overhead at dawn and dusk in the in the Twin Cities in the summer.

Gathering of chimney-swifts
A gathering of chimney swifts prepares to dive into the chimney at the Orono Intermediate School in Long Lake, Minn., at dusk. One pair of birds will raise their young in the chimney, allowing many non-breeding adults to keep them company.
Photo courtesy of Rebecca Field

Are there projects here in Minnesota that demonstrate the success that wetland restoration has been for protecting waterfowl?

Yeah, and this the the silver lining. We have a vision of what could be with appropriate conservation action. So for the past few decades, we've really worked hard to make sure that duck populations throughout the country and North America have the habitat they need, and that has paid off those populations have improved.

It's also worth noting that a surface reading of the report suggests that birds in wet environments are doing well, but in reality, many of the marsh bird species that are found in similar environments have not responded quite as well as the ducks have. And so we still need to put a lot of effort into the management and development of good wetland habitat.

What do you want to see happen here in Minnesota after seeing this report?

We are especially focused on the Mississippi River. It's a migratory corridor. Three-quarters of the bird species in North America migrate through this Mississippi River area, and so we feel like there's no better place to invest in habitat restoration enhancement than the Mississippi River. And so Audubon has active programs that are monitoring birds and enhancing habitat along those regions up and down the river.

And then, grassland birds are really stand out in this report as struggling. Their populations are declining faster than any other group of birds in North America. The challenge there is that our grassland habitats, historic prairie ecosystems, are such great agricultural land. So we're looking for opportunities to kind of have a little bit of both.

Audubon has a new program I'm really excited about called Audubon Conservation Ranching, in which we are using cattle and grazing them in a way that mimics bison, where you can raise cattle and have beef that is very compatible with thriving bird communities.

And so Audubon certifies the land and says that this beef is raised in a way that's compatible with bird habitat. It's already active in the western U.S. and we're bringing it to Minnesota, Iowa and Missouri and in the year to come.

What can people do in their backyard?

Our backyards can be critical habitat for birds, especially during migration during the spring and fall, when birds are passing through Minnesota. When we plant native plants that provide food sources for those birds, that's a great benefit to birds. When we keep our cats indoors and make sure that our buildings have coverings on the windows so that the birds can recognize them as windows and avoid window collisions, all those things can be really beneficial for birds.

And of course, they are also policies that we can support. Minnesota, for example, has a fantastic funding source with the Outdoor Heritage Fund, which supports habitat work, and the Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund, which is really critical for research and educational programs. Audubon is part of a coalition that's working to get that reauthorized.