Waterfowl Numbers Are Up While Most Bird Species Are in Decline, and Birders Should Pay Attention to Why

Decades of waterfowl conservation can serve as a template for recovering other bird species in the United States and Canada
flock of mallards adobe stock
Unlike many other bird species on the continent, ducks and other waterbirds have increased in population since 1970. Daniel Dunca / Adobe Stock

Bird populations are declining in nearly every habitat on the continent, but the science points to one silver lining. Released last week by the North American Bird Conservation Initiative, the 2022 State of the Birds Report indicates that more than 50 percent of all bird species have declined over the last half century, with roughly 70 of those species currently teetering on the brink of collapse. The one beaming exception among all these species is waterfowl, which have increased in number since 1970—thanks in part to continued investments in wetland conservation.

“While a majority of bird species are declining, many waterbird populations remain healthy, thanks to decades of collaborative investments from hunters, landowners, state and federal agencies, and corporations,” Ducks Unlimited chief conservation officer Karen Waldrop said in a recent press release. “This is good news not only for birds, but for the thousands of other species that rely on wetlands.”

Waterbird populations in the U.S have increased by 18 percent, according to the report, and overall duck numbers have increased by an impressive 34 percent. Some goose populations, meanwhile, are near historic highs. These numbers contrast sharply with other bird populations, such as shorebird species, which have decreased by 33 percent over the past five decades, and they serve as proof that years of proactive conservation measures are paying off.

Birders Should Pay Attention to Duck Conservation

The overall increase in waterfowl populations can be attributed in part to the ongoing collaboration between conservation organizations, government agencies, and the hunting community. These partners have invested heavily in habitat conservation over the years and promoted policies that benefit ducks as well as other species that depend on wetlands.

“Waterfowl and other wetland bird species have succeeded where so many other bird populations are in dire straits thanks to the investment of our supporters and the science-based approach of our habitat conservation work,” Ducks Unlimited CEO Adam Putnam said last week. 

2022 state of the birds graph
This graph from the report shows population trends in North American bird species over the last 50 years. courtesy of Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Hunters have been the biggest supporters of proactive waterfowl conservation, and hunter-funded programs like the Federal Duck Stamp Program have been critical in funding the protection and restoration of vital wetland habitats throughout North America. Since its inception in 1934, funds from duck stamp sales have protected nearly six million acres of habitat and sponsored the creation of roughly 300 national wildlife refuges. Add in the funds from license sales and the billions of Pittman-Robertson dollars generated by sportsmen and gun owners on an annual basis, and wildlife managers have a sizable well of conservation funding to draw from.

Read Next: Sportsmen, Gun Owners Generated a Record $1.5 Billion in Conservation Funding Last Year

Private partnerships also been widely successful in restoring and protecting the continent’s wetlands. This includes the North American Waterfowl Management Program and the U.S Farm Bill, which incentivize the restoration, protection, and proper management of wetlands by landowners and land managers. Taken together, these efforts represent a blueprint for success that can potentially be carried over to other bird species.   

“The North American Waterfowl Management Plan, Federal Duck Stamp Program, grants from the North American Wetlands Conservation Act, and regional Joint Ventures partnerships are all part of a framework that has a proven track record with restoring and protecting wetland dependent species,” said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service director Martha Williams. “Now we want to use that precedent to work with our partners to restore bird populations, conserve habitat, and build a foundation for how we respond to the loss of other bird groups.”  

Other Factors at Play

Several other factors may also be contributing to the increase of waterfowl in North America. The report indicates that improvements in water quality and the birds’ ability to adapt to changing landscapes have also likely played a role in their population growth.

Some species of fish-eating waterbirds, such as pelicans, have seen a sharp increase in their numbers in recent decades, signaling higher water quality levels in certain rivers and lakes. Meanwhile, species like Canada Geese and green-winged teal appear to have found ways to adapt to the changing landscape by taking advantage of growing croplands and the rapid urbanization taking place from coast to coast. 

Read Next: Pintails Hit Their Lowest Population in Decades. Some Researchers Think We Could be Miscounting Them

There is also a growing consensus that climate change may be negatively and positively affecting waterfowl populations. Ongoing drought is certainly cause for concern in places like California and the Prairie Pothole Region, but some waterfowl experts now believe that increased warming in the Arctic due to climate change could be opening up new habitats for pintails and other duck species.

A recent study of 16 common duck species supported this hypothesis, showing more birds shifting into northern locations rather than in their normal southern habitats as melting permafrost has opened up new wetland areas in the northern U.S. and Canada.

A Template for the Future of Bird Conservation

As much as it deals with past trends and observations, the 2022 State of the Birds Report also looks ahead. It outlines the need for increased conservation funding and highlights the successes from the waterfowl management world as a template for the future.

“The State of the Birds report is a clarion call for us all to help address the wildlife crisis and equip our state, Tribal, and territorial wildlife managers with the tools and funds they need,” said Corina Newsome, associate scientist with the National Wildlife Federation.

golden winged warbler from 2022 state of birds report
Golden-winged Warblers have lost half of their population in the last 50 years, according to the report. Kevin Pero, Cornell Lab / Macaulay Library

This summer, the House of Representatives took a step in this direction by passing landmark legislation that aims to provide $1.36 billion to state and tribal agencies to conserve at-risk wildlife species. The Recovering America’s Wildlife Act, which now awaits a Senate vote, would be a massive step toward providing some much-needed funding for bird species nationwide. Importantly, the legislation would fund investments in non-game birds and other important species that we haven’t yet established funding mechanisms for.

Read Next: Why Congress Must Pass Recovering America’s Wildlife Act

In addition, a coalition of agencies from Mexico, Canada, Indigenous Nations, and the U.S. are working together to create a management plan focusing on grassland species, which have declined by 34 percent since 1970. The project would protect more than 300 million acres of grassland habitat across the continent. 

As nearly half of all bird species continue to decline, and numerous species stand on the brink of collapse, actions like these will be necessary for the future of bird populations on the continent. Luckily, managers and agencies will have a blueprint to follow, and they can learn from the ongoing success of hunters and waterfowl managers. Their efforts have provided the report’s lone bright spot and hope for the future, explains Ruth Bennett, an ecologist at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute’s Migratory Bird Center.

“Hunting groups and federal agencies recognized that these birds were declining and took action,” says Bennett. “It’s really a conservation success story, and it goes to show what’s possible when there is enough money and political will to protect birds.”