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State of the Birds report shows decline in western forest birds

A close up photo of a rufous hummingbird in mid-flight. Just to the left of the bird is a bright purple flower.
Aidan Brubaker
Cornell Lab | Macaulay Library
A rufous hummingbird, one of three "tipping point" species identified in the Pacific Northwest. These birds have lost more than half their population since 1970, according to the report.

A new report looking at bird population trends across the country shows a poor outlook for bird species in the Pacific Northwest.

Produced every few years by a nationwide coalition, the State of the Birds report shows a continued decline in many bird populations, including those throughout the region’s western forests.

Its authors include the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service among other nonprofits and federal agencies.

Birds are indicators for ecosystem health, just like the proverbial canary in the coal mine, according to John Alexander, executive director of the Klamath Bird Observatory in Ashland.

“What the State of the Birds report is showing is if the Earth is our coal mine, let's take a look at what the birds are doing so we can understand how we can make sure that our coal mine remains healthy," Alexander says.

The decline in western bird populations can be traced to a century of poor forest management, resulting in extreme wildfires and drought, he says.

“We’ve lost the resilience of our forests, and then now with climate change and drought, our forests are less able to handle that,” says Alexander. “Where historically, they might have been able to handle more drought and more fire conditions because that’s what they had evolved to be able to handle.”

He says when forests would burn in the past, the first trees to regrow would be hardwoods. But by managing many of our forests for timber production, an emphasis on replanting conifer trees means that cycle is broken.

The report shows forests across southern and eastern Oregon and Washington in desperate need of restoration to return them to a more natural state.

Western forest birds have declined by nearly 20% since reaching recent highs in the 1990’s. The report also identifies three “tipping point” species, which are at high risk of extinction. These three species have lost more than half of their population since 1970, including the pinyon jay and rufous hummingbird.

A graph showing bird population trends since 1970
Courtesy of Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Geese and swan populations have reached near historic population highs due to successful adaptation to agricultural and urban landscapes, according to the report.

Birds in the Northwest’s arid lands are also facing steep population declines. Birds such as greater sage grouse face continued pressure of habitat loss. The report calls for further federal and state protections to ensure that trend is reversed.

The only birds that have seen overall population gains since 1970 are those in wetlands habitats. The report cites successful conservation efforts, like the North American Wetlands Conservation Act, as helping with the long-term recovery of these bird species.

Alexander hopes to use this report to bring national attention towards forest restoration projects in the Northwest, including securing additional federal funding to help improve forest health and bird populations.

After graduating from Oregon State University, Roman came to JPR as part of the Charles Snowden Program for Excellence in Journalism in 2019. He then joined Delaware Public Media as a Report For America fellow before returning to the west coast.