10 Threatened and Endangered Birds on the Road to Recovery

1. Atlantic Puffin

Roughly 60% of the world’s Atlantic Puffins are primarily found in Iceland, while the other 40% can be found in Newfoundland and Labrador, northern Russia, the northeastern United States, and along the Brittany coast of France. Despite the Atlantic puffin being found in a wide range of locations worldwide, they were on the verge of extinction in 2018.

Of the many factors that have contributed to this decline, overhunting in 2013 has had the largest impact. The rise in sea temperatures in combination with overfishing in Norway has also been depleting the herring population, leaving many puffin chicks to die of starvation. Because Atlantic Puffins live much of their lives on the open ocean, they are highly susceptible to pollution poisoning. In addition to ingesting oil in the water from tankers and drilling operations in the area, oil spills also coat the Puffins’ feathers, stripping their natural waterproof coating and leading to death from exposure to cold Arctic temperatures.

Atlantic Puffins choose isolated islands during breeding season as there are no large predators to destroy their nesting. Because Puffins do not have the adaptations to avoid these predators, animals introduced to puffin breeding areas by humans, including dogs and rats, have also led to their decline over time.

Efforts established with the purpose of protecting the Atlantic Puffin include SOS Puffin at the Scottish Seabird Centre and Project Puffin of the National Audubon Society.

2. California Condor

Humans have been the biggest threat to the California Condor population over the years. Condors pick up leftover trash and discarded items, including broken pieces of glass and coins, that they mistakenly feed to their young under the impression that these items are food. Because these Condors exclusively forage on animal carcasses, they are highly susceptible to lead poisoning from spent ammunition. Construction of housing developments, solar and wind projects, and oil production have all contributed to the loss of habitat that Condors have previously used for foraging and nesting. Additionally, the average wingspan of an adult condor can reach lengths of up to ten feet, making electrocution from power lines a very real and significant threat as well.

This combination of threats reduced the California Condor population was reduced to just nine birds in 1985. Shortly after, in 1987, they went extinct in the wild, as all remaining Condors in the wild had been captured and taken to zoos to encourage captive breeding. They have recently been reintroduced to northern Arizona, southern Utah, northern Baja California, and the coastal mountains of central and southern California.

Condor Watch is a crowdsourcing project that was established in 2014 that enables both volunteers and scientists to participate in monitoring and researching California Condors in the wild in hopes of learning which birds are at risk of lead poisoning and how to avoid this problem moving forward.

3. Philippine Eagle

The Philippine Eagle, a giant forest raptor endemic to the Philippines, is one of the three largest and most powerful eagles in the world. These eagles mate for life, with each pair requiring a minimum of 7,000 hectares (27 square miles) of forest to survive and raise their young. Deforestation for residential space, farming, and logging in the Philippines reduces the number of hectares available and needed for survival, and disturbs the pair’s breeding and nesting activities. Additionally, Philippine Eagle pairs only have one chick every two years, making the population hard to recover. Today, there are roughly 400 pairs left in the wild.

The Philippine Eagle Foundation is a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving the rainforest habitat and protecting the remaining Philippine Eagle population.

4. Whooping Crane

The Whooping Crane is the tallest bird in North America, standing at a whopping five feet tall. While power line collisions and nest site disturbances are among the leading causes of population decline, loss and deterioration of critical wetland habitats and illegal shootings are the largest threats facing the whooping crane. In 1941, just fifteen birds remained in the wild.

Captive breeding was encouraged in the 1960s, though this wouldn’t prove to be widely successful in increasing the population until years later. Today, there are approximately 505 Whooping Cranes that winter in south Texas; other populations include 163 in captivity, and 181 in the Eastern Migratory, Louisiana non-migratory, and Florida non-migratory groups combined. The only naturally migrating flock currently nest in Canada and make the 2,400 mile journey south to the Texas Gulf Coast every winter. When the total population reaches at least 1,000 whooping cranes that maintain stability for ten years, the species will be down listed from endangered to threatened.

The International Crane Foundation works to preserve coastal habitats in Texas and reintroduce whooping cranes back into the wild.

5. Piping Plover

The Piping Plover is a shorebird that can be found on the east coast and in the midwest near the Great Lakes. During the 19th and 20th centuries, their population experienced a dramatic decline when they were hunted for their feathers, which were commonly used in women’s hats during this time.

While the Piping Plover migrates to the Gulf of Mexico for the winter every year, they breed along the shorelines of the Great Lakes, along the shores of rivers and lakes in the Northern Great Plains, and along the Atlantic Coast. In an effort to preserve them, many ocean beaches are entirely off limits during critical times in the nesting season. Often times, Piping Plover nests and eggs can get accidentally stepped on by people, run over by vehicles, and killed by dogs. Compromised nests in combination with water level manipulation by dams and construction development destroys their breeding habit, making it hard for them to recover. Today, the Piping Plover is listed as endangered in the Great Lakes region and is classified as threatened elsewhere, with only 8,000 left in existence.

Defenders of Wildlife works to protect the piping plover population along one of their most critical nesting locations—Cape Hatteras National Seashore off the coast of North Carolina.

6. Short-tailed Albatross

These large, rare seabirds can be found off the coast of Japan, eastern Russia, and the Bering Sea during the non-breeding season, and along four of Japan’s islands during the nesting season. It is estimated that around 10 million Short-tailed Albatrosses were hunted for their feathers during the latter half of the 19th century.

By the 1930s, the only population left was found on Torishima, an active volcanic island of Japan. In 1933, the Japanese government placed a ban on hunting in an effort to save the remaining population. Around this same time, the Short-tailed Albatross stopped breeding on the island, and thus were thought to be extinct. After World War II had ended, 50 young albatrosses were discovered at sea and, in 1954, the group had laid its first egg. Shortly after, researchers began to place Albatross decoys around the island to encourage breeding after discovering that many Albatross species are more likely to breed in groups.

In more recent years, because Torishima is an active volcano that could completely decimate the Short-tailed Albatross population, breeding has been encouraged by translocating Albatross chicks to Mukojima, a nesting island 217 miles south of Torishima. Additionally, the American Seabird Conservancy works to conserve the Short-tailed Albatross, along with other seabird species.

7. Golden-cheeked Warbler

The Golden-cheeked Warbler is endemic to Texas, breeding exclusively in the juniper woodlands in the central part of the state from March to June, and then migrates south to Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras, and Mexico from November to February.

Their nesting habitat, the juniper tree, had been cut down and used for timber products up until the 1940s. More recently, these woodlands have been cleared for housing developments and new road construction. With such strict breeding habitat parameters that are quickly being destroyed, the Golden-cheeked Warbler is at risk for extinction.

The Balcones Canyonlands Conservation Plan’s primary goal is to protect the Golden-cheeked Warbler and other endangered songbirds. Roughly 1,140 acres of the Bull Creek Nature Preserve have been acquired to help preserve these birds. Its unique, rugged landscape has helped to spare much of its vegetation (including juniper trees) from being accessed and destroyed by humans. Now recognized as the Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge, this area is significant for world bird conservation, and has been officially designated a Globally Important Bird Area.

8. Kirtland’s Warbler

The Kirtland’s Warbler is a small songbird that nests in northern Michigan, Wisconsin, and Ontario, and has one of the most geographically restricted breeding distributions of any bird in the continental United States, requiring a minimum of eighty acres of dense, jack pine forests during breeding season, though 300-400 acres is preferable.

The Great Lakes were formed before the receding ice during the Ice Age, which prevented the spread of the jack pine tree into other regions. As European settlers moved into North America, much of the forest in the southern Great Lakes region was cut away for land development, and the Kirtland warbler became trapped on the northern Lower Peninsula.

While the shortage of jack pine forests is the largest contributor to declining Kirtland’s Warbler populations, cowbird parasitism (also known as nest parasitism) is the second largest. Cowbirds lay eggs in other bird’s nests, tricking the unsuspecting hosts into incubating and raising the young cowbirds as their own.

Though there were just 500 Kirtland’s warblers left in the 1970s, today there are an estimated 5,000. Several charities and nonprofits have devoted hours of research efforts into supporting the Kirtland’s Warbler’s population growth, including Huron Pines, the Kirtland’s Warbler Alliance, and the Towsley Foundation.

9. Northern Spotted Owl

The Northern Spotted Owl was most commonly found in most forests throughout southwestern British Columbia, western Washington and Oregon, and northwestern California. Today, they are particularly rare in these regions, with most individuals belonging to a large and virtually isolated population that currently resides on the Olympic peninsula.

Timber harvesting, land conversions, and natural disasters like fire and windstorms have destroyed much of the Northern spotted owl’s nesting, roosting, and foraging habitats. When these owls are forced to adapt to and live in smaller patches of forest, they become more susceptible to starvation and predation. Competition from invading barred owls has also contributed to the population decline because of their larger size and aggressive nature.

Researchers suggest that the amount of suitable habitat for Northern spotted owls has declined by over 60% in the past 200 years, while their population is currently declining at a rate of 2.9% every year. Although efforts are being made to save this species, past trends suggest that most of their remaining unprotected habitat could disappear in less than thirty years.

10. Ivory-billed Woodpecker

This is the only species on our list whose status is currently unknown. With no confirmed sightings since a 2005 video surfaced, many believe the Ivory-billed Woodpecker to be extinct.

They inhabited the bottomland hardwood forests of Mississippi, North Carolina, Texas, Arkansas, and Florida, and were also commonly found in parts of Cuba. Much of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker’s habitat has been destroyed for agriculture and lumber. Surrounding rivers were contained behind levees and dams, cutting off the floodplains from the water that nourished the trees in the area, therefore drying out the soil and stopping the regeneration of vegetation needed for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker’s survival. Currently, less than 10% of Arkansas’ original eight million acres of forested wetlands remain.

The Ivory-billed Woodpecker makes a unique double-knock noise when it pecks trees, which might be our best chance at identifying any potential survivors. Until a sighting is confirmed, however, their status remains a mystery.