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Monday, August 25, 2014

We Are Birds, and Birds Are in Big Trouble: Winged Warnings, Part 1

Winged Warnings: Built for survival, birds in trouble from pole to pole

Tomorrow: Osprey whisperers
By Alanna Mitchell
Environmental Health News
Part 1 of Winged Warnings,
published in conjunction with National Geographic
August 25, 2014
The ice of Antarctica doesn’t faze birds. Nor does the heat of the tropics. They thrive in the desert, in swamps, on the open ocean, on sheer rock faces, on treeless tundra, atop airless mountaintops and burrowed into barren soil.
Some fly nonstop for days on end. With just the feathers on their backs, they crisscross the hemisphere, dodging hurricanes and predators along the way, pinpointing scarce food, tracking down safe resting places, arriving unerringly at a precise spot, year after year.
Sole descendents of the dinosaurs, birds have penetrated nearly every ecosystem on Earth and then tailored their own size, habits and colors to each one, pollinating, dispersing seeds, controlling bugs, cleaning up carrion and fertilizing plants, all the while singing notes so beguiling that hearing them makes even the urban dweller pause to listen.
Birds are the planet’s superheroes, built for survival. But for all their superhuman powers, they are in trouble.
Globally, one in eight – more than 1,300 species – are threatened with extinction, and the status of most of those is deteriorating, according to BirdLife International. And many others are in worrying decline, from the tropics to the poles.
Barn swallows, Pete Myers
Across the globe, many species of birds are sending us warnings.
“If birds are having issues, you have to think about whether humans are going to have issues too,” said Geoff LeBaron, an ornithologist with the National Audubon Society based in Massachusetts and international director of the Christmas Bird Count.
Globally, one in eight – more than 1,300 species – are threatened with extinction, and the status of most of those is deteriorating, according to BirdLife International.In North America’s breadbasket, populations of grassland birds such as sweet-trilling meadowlarks are in a free-fall, along with those everywhere else on the planet. Graceful fliers like swifts and swallows that snap up insects on the wing are showing widespread declines in Europe and North America. Eagles, vultures and other raptors are on the wane throughout Africa. Colonies of sea birds such as murres and puffins on the North Atlantic are vanishing, and so are shorebirds, including red knots in the Western Hemisphere. Sandpipers, spoonbills, pelicans and storks, among the migratory birds dependent on the intertidal flats of Asia’s Yellow Sea, are under threat. Australian and South American parrots are struggling and some of the iconic penguins of Antarctica face starvation.
While birds sing, they also speak. Many of their declines are driven by the loss of places to live and breed – their marshes, rivers, forests and plains – or by diminished food supply. But more and more these days the birds are telling us about new threats to the environment and potentially human health in the coded language of biochemistry. Through analysis of the inner workings of birds’ cells, scientists have been deciphering increasingly urgent signals from ecosystems around the world.
Like the fabled canaries that miners once thrust into coal mines to check for poisonous gases, birds provide the starkest clues in the animal kingdom about whether humans, too, may be harmed by toxic substances. And they prophesy what might happen to us as the load of carbon-based, planet-warming gases in the atmosphere and oceans climbs ever higher.
Red-winged blackbird, Pete Myers
"And no birds sing"
Rachel Carson was the earliest and best-known scientist to link the fate of birds to that of humans. Alerted by reports of sharp declines in birds of prey and songbirds, she began to examine the effects of the pesticide DDT. It was the first modern synthetic pesticide, in wide use after World War II to control mosquitoes and other insects.
Her book Silent Spring, published in 1962 – the title echoes the poet John Keats’ celebrated line “And no birds sing” – explained that DDT moved up through food chains, from the insects it was designed to kill to the creatures that ate them. It accumulated inexorably in tissues, organs and fat in top predators such as peregrine falcons, ospreys, bald eagles and pelicans. “Over increasingly large areas of the United States, spring now comes unheralded by the return of the birds, and the early mornings are strangely silent where once they were filled with the beauty of bird song,” Carson wrote.
But it wasn’t just the birds. Carson reasoned that if DDT could accumulate in birds, it would accumulate in humans, too. “We have subjected enormous numbers of people to contact with these poisons without their consent and often without their knowledge," she wrote. By 1972, after public uproar, DDT was banned in the United States and eventually banned around the world except in malaria-prone countries, mostly in Africa.
Cheryl Katz
This Arctic tern chick died on Iceland' Flatey Island, where there have been massive chick dieoffs, likely due to changing ocean conditions.
Everybody thought these parakeets were doing well until a couple of decades ago, when scientists realized that the government had doused marijuana and coca plantations with herbicide.
Yet DDT’s legacy remains. Traces of the persistent pesticide, classified as a “probable” carcinogen, are still found in most people around the world today and in the land and water they depend on. And, again, it’s birds that are telling us this tale: A recent study reported that birds of prey in South Carolina still carry as much DDT and other legacy pesticides in their bodies as they did before such chemicals were banned in the 1970s, “suggesting exposure has not declined substantially over the past 40 years.” And in the town of St. Louis, Mich., near an old chemical plant, robins are still dropping dead of DDT poisoning, registering some of the highest levels ever recorded in wild birds.
The idea that birds tell us about our own health has gained even more scientific traction in the decades since Silent Spring as biochemical analysis has become more precise. Much of that work stemmed from studies conducted on the Great Lakes, the world’s first and biggest testing ground for contaminants and birds.
The work of Canadian Wildlife Service toxicologist Glen Fox and others began with tales from terns and other fish-eating birds. He found high levels of polychlorinated biphenyls or PCBs, in the Great Lakes and their sediments, and enlarged thyroids that were producing little hormone in the birds. Thyroid hormones are critical for ensuring proper brain development, so altering them can impair intelligence, motor skills and behavior. Building up in food webs just like DDT, PCBs were banned in the United States in 1978, with the rest of the world to follow.
“The birds really told the story, elegantly.” –Theo Colborn, scientist and co-author of Our Stolen FutureBy the late 1980s, zoologist Theo Colborn, then at the World Wildlife Fund, began examining the Great Lakes studies to see if she could discern a big picture. She recalls reading through stacks of academic papers and tracking the findings in a chart.
The results were stunning: The Great Lakes’ top 16 or 17 bird predators were vanishing. The problem stemmed from assaults on the endocrine system, which controls hormones and reproduction. And that, in turn, was linked to manmade substances in the water and prey. So, birds’ ability to reproduce crashed in multiple ways: Young failed to hatch; babies were deformed; male young were feminized; female young were more masculine; chicks’ immune systems were impaired; parents forgot how to parent. The concept of the “endocrine disruptor” was born.
“The birds really told the story, elegantly,” said Colborn, who co-authored the 1996 book Our Stolen Future, which chronicled the threats of hormone disruption.
Black oystercatcher, Pete Myers
Proxies for people
Once the chemicals’ effects on birds were established, scientists began looking more intensively at humans. Their studieshave suggested that those same chemicals also may be altering human hormones. Part of a pregnant mother’s load of chemicals passes to her baby while it is still in the womb, with evidence mounting that suggests the chemicals can alter development of the baby’s brain and its reproductive and immune systems, leading to troubles later in life, such as lower intelligence, behavioral problems and reduced fertility. Some studies suggest a link between endocrine disruptors and a greater risk of prostate and breast cancers and other diseases. Some research even suggests chemicals can switch genes on and off, affecting grandchildren and great-grandchildren – all the unexposed generations, humanity’s future.
 Kenneth R. Weiss
Teton Raptor Center program director Jason Jones wrestles a bald eagle with a broken wing.
When it comes to chemicals and broad planetary changes, birds have shown us that they are in a unique position to tip us off to health threats. That doesn’t mean that birds are more vulnerable than humans, said Pierre Mineau, an expert on pesticide ecotoxicology and its effects on birds who recently retired from Environment Canada. In fact, amphibians such as frogs are likely more vulnerable because their thin skins draw in the chemicals and because they are in constant contact with polluted water. But they are much harder to find, count and assess than birds.
“Birds can tell us a lot about what’s going on around us that we might not be able to see." –Christy Morrissey, University of Saskatchewan  Birds, on the other hand, are highly visible. People track them, notice them, care deeply about them. Of all the non-human creatures on Earth, birds are by far the most closely scrutinized, said Nicola Crockford, international species policy officer with BirdLife International in England. That translates into a robust body of knowledge about how and where birds live, a baseline for scientists seeking to monitor change.
Looking at birds gives humans the unsurpassed ability to identify and quantify chemical threats across time and space around the globe, noted Christy Morrissey, an ecotoxicologist at the University of Saskatchewan. “Birds can tell us a lot about what’s going on around us that we might not be able to see,” she said.
Perched atop many food webs, birds of prey such as eagles and falcons soak up chemicals from the things they eat. That means looking at birds is a proxy for looking at plants, insects, fish and small mammals, over time. Not only that, but about one in five birds migrates, so those birds are sampling pollutants in many parts of the world. Scientists can capture birds, test them, band them, let them go and then catch them years later to see what’s changed. Birds normally maintain relatively stable numbers, unlike small mammals, so when their populations take a dive, it means something noteworthy is going on.
Many birds also live a long time – for eagles and owls, decades – meaning scientists can study a bird’s life cycle and then extrapolate what would happen to a human exposed to the same chemicals from birth to death, Morrissey said. Reading birds is a reasonable stand-in for a human epidemiological study, especially when it comes to the endocrine system, she added. “Vertebrates are vertebrates,” she said. “The endocrine system is so similar [in birds and mammals]. We all have circulating hormones and a thyroid that regulates the system.” Today, studies on how endocrine-disrupting chemicals affect birds is a main plank of future research that may also have implications for human health.
 Northern cardinal, Pete Myers
Beyond DDT and PCBs
On the prairies of Canada, Morrissey is trying to decipher where sanderlings, red knots and semipalmated sandpipers are picking up contaminants as they travel. Then she’s tracking those chemicals – which include PCBs and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons or PAHs – through a bird’s lifespan, examining whether they affect its ability to fatten up and sustain a long migration. She's also looking at whether the chemicals have affected brain development, robbing them of the ability to navigate and learn when to molt. Early results of birds dosed in captivity in the first days of life say they do.
Barn owls are dying from massive stomach bleeds caused by eating rats laced with rodenticides.In other words, she’s investigating not just whether the chemicals impair the birds’ ability to reproduce, but also their ability to thrive. “If they’re not able to fatten, they won’t make it,” she said, as grackles, orioles and yellow warblers sang in the background.
Morrissey and Mineau also are at the forefront of research globally on the newest class of pesticide, the neonicotinoids or neonics for short. Mineau helped unlock the puzzle in the mid-1990s of how the organophosphate pesticide monocrotophos, which replaced DDT-like insecticides, killed off masses of endangered Swainson’s hawks in Argentina. He said he was originally relieved that neonics replaced organophosphates, which are ferocious bird-killers, but now his research on neonics, including a report for the American Bird Conservancy, has him worried. They are extremely persistent in the environment and water soluble, which means they move around, he said. They take down nearly any insect or crustacean that comes along. "The real issue is the ecosystem-wide effects," Mineau said.
Sanderlings, Pete Myers 
Contaminants may affect shorebirds' ability to fatten up before migrating.
Rat-killing poisons also are causing agonizing deaths of not just rodents, but the birds that eat them. Barn owls in Canada, for example, are dying from massive stomach bleeds caused by an extra-strong class of rodenticide.
And in Southeast Asia, tens of millions of vultures have perished from feasting on carcasses of livestock treated with diclofenac, an anti-inflammatory drug. Three vulture species now are teetering on the edge of extinction. In a victory, hopefully not too late, the drug is no longer used for livestock in Asia. Its use is on the rise in Europe, however, particularly in Spain, where it has killed thousands of vultures, eagles and other carrion-eaters in recent years.
Traces of people's prescription drugs, washed into sewers, also are collecting in fish, which means ospreys and other birds of prey are sometimes exposed totherapeutic doses of heart medications, antidepressants and other drugs.
Perched atop many food webs, birds of prey such as eagles and falcons soak up chemicals from the things they eat. That means looking at birds is a proxy for looking at plants, insects, fish and small mammals, over time. Adding to their burden, birds are contaminated with a whole new spate of pollutants, such as perfluorinated compounds or PFCs, used to manufacture such substances as Teflon and stain-resistant coatings. Brominated chemicals used as flame retardants in furniture foam and electronics also are collecting in bird tissues, just like PCBs. Kestrels exposed in laboratories have fewer chicks, smaller eggs and some behavior issues, such as bad parenting skills and more aggressive males. Some flame retardants seem to mimic estrogen, others mimic or block testosterone. It all adds up to a load of dozens of chemicals, many with consequences still unknown.
In Sweden, for example, ornithologists are racing to figure out why white-tailed sea eagles on the coast of the Baltic Sea, devastated by DDT and PCBs in the 1970s, are again experiencing thin shells and deformed embryos, said Cynthia de Wit, a professor of environmental science at Stockholm University who specializes in human and wildlife exposure to synthetic chemicals. “It’s very alarming; we really don’t know why,” she said, adding that it’s possible that old chemicals are being “remobilized” or that new ones are having effects not yet assessed.
Scientists are closely examining the effects of heavy metals such as mercury and lead. A recent study of Antarctic skuas showed those contaminated with mercury, a byproduct of coal-burning power plants, have more trouble reproducing. Mercury even seems to alter the singing of songbirds. Lead, sometimes lethal to birds of prey that eat it in gut piles left by hunters, also seems to have subtle effects, perhaps interfering with their ability to navigate around obstacles.
Cedar waxwing, Pete Myers
Why do people care about birds?
Pragmatically, humans have relied on birds’ superpowers for millennia to let us in on their secrets. Imagine forest-dwellers of ancient times, anxious to avoid snakes and jaguars, listening for the alarm calls of sharp-sighted, high-flying, omnipresent birds. Think of medieval sailors, following fish-eating birds to find out where they should throw their nets, or rejoicing that shore was near when they caught sight of a land-loving cormorant instead of the albatrosses that favor the open ocean. Sailors of old may have even followed the paths of migratory birds to colonize new lands, said Garry Donaldson, a conservation biologist with the Canadian Wildlife Service.
Great crested grebe, Pete Myers 
Birds signal the presence of dangerous pathogens such as West Nile virus.
And throughout history, humans have considered birds to be our protectors, the vigilant sentinels, writes the Nobel laureate immunologist Peter Doherty in his 2012 book Their Fate is our Fate: How Birds Foretell Threats to our Health and Our World. "Way back to mythological times, guard duty has been part of the avian job description. Gods with the body of a man and the head of a bird, like the ibis, falcon, hawk or heron, watched over the ancient Egyptians...Sacred geese in the temple of the Goddess Juno alerted the exhausted defenders of ancient Rome to a nocturnal attack by marauding Gauls," Doherty wrote.
And to many Native American and other indigenous cultures, birds are messengers sent by the creator, or symbols of change, or protectors and healers. Today they play that role in a non-spiritual sense: They send warnings to tribes about the health risks of eating fish tainted with industrial pollutants.
Birds also herald the presence of pathogens, such as avian influenza and West Nile virus, noted Nicholas Komar, a biologist who specializes in vector-borne diseases with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Fort Collins, Colo. When birds are found dead of West Nile, it’s proof humans also are at risk. Infected birds don’t transmit the virus to humans – mosquitoes do – but they are a sign that it is present in the environment. He is pressing for more testing of dead birds as a swift means of detecting flashpoints for potential transmission to humans.
Apart from data points, birds also provide us with sheer joy – in their songs and striking colors, and from the spectacle of watching them swoop through the air. “Which of us has not wished we could do that?” asked John Fitzpatrick, director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, New York. He said humans intuitively respond to birds’ colors and varied voices, which signal that the year is marching on. “They move with the seasons. It’s a major annual heartbeat we feel.”
“Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!
No hungry generations tread thee down;
The voice I hear this passing night was heard
In ancient days by emperor and clown.”
John Keats  
In his “Ode to a Nightingale,” Keats declares steadfastly that birds must prevail despite us, just as they always have.
But will Keats’s prophecy stand the test of time? In the past five centuries, about 150 bird species have gone extinct at the hand of humanity, including the passenger pigeon and the dodo, according to research by Duke University biologist Stuart Pimm. But that rate is speeding up and will be 10 times higher by the end of this century if trends persist, his study calculates. BirdLife’s most recent survey shows that 197 species are critically endangered, which means they are just one disease outbreak or a couple of bad breeding seasons away from extinction. Hotspots of risk are hot parts of the world: The Atlantic forests of Brazil and the islands of Indonesia are a particular worry because so many birds live there, so much of the land is being cleared and few protections are in place.
Eastern bluebird, Pete Myers
 Brian Bienkowski
Ringed-billed gulls in Quebec are highly exposed to flame retardants.
Omens of a dangerous future
The wild card for birds, with the potential to magnify all past and future threats, is the high-carbon world humans have created through the burning of fossil fuels for energy. Scientists are struggling to chronicle the intricate layers of fallout from climate change -- and to glimpse once again what birds foretell about humanity’s fate. Frank Gill, who wrote the textbook Ornithology and was president of the National Audubon Society, said the scientific effort has shifted dramatically from the time when Carson’s work on chemicals set the standard. Today, biologists are examining complex, continental effects of climate change on birds’ abundance and distribution.
For instance, brown pelicans, taken off California’s endangered species list in 2009, are in the throes of a catastrophic breeding failure this year, said Dan Anderson, professor emeritus of ecotoxicology and marine ornithology at University of California, Davis, who recently completed his 46th annual census of the birds. The cause appears to be an El Niño event with its strongly warmer ocean currents and high winds. While El Niños are natural and periodic phenomena, they are expected to intensify and become more common. Anderson and others are assessing what effect that could have on pelicans, noting that it would take two or three terrible breeding seasons in a row to seriously affect the population.
Birds have many superpowers that humans can only envy.  Yet we also have the power to make sure birds continue to sing. Already, Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count has found that the “center of abundance” of more than half of North American species that stay through the winter has shifted as much as 200 miles north over the past 60 years, a response to warmer average temperatures, LeBaron said. And a study of 40 western North American songbird species found that those inhabiting the highest elevations on mountaintops are moving farther up, rather than farther north, to flee the heat, said David King, a research wildlife biologist at the U.S. Forest Service’s Northern Research Station in Massachusetts. Inevitably, they will run out of places to go.
 Omens from the birds are not easy to read. So far, they are telling us that this world is shifting where they can live, forcing them to change the timing of their migrations and nesting, making their food harder to find and perhaps fostering diseases such as the West Nile virus.
Pete Myers
Brown pelican populations in California are crashing this year, likely due to warmer ocean currents.
 Eastern phoebe, Pete Myers
Birds, people share superpowers
Birds have many superpowers that humans can only envy. But we have extraordinary powers, too: The ability to alter the chemistry of the air and the sea, and to create synthetic substances that live longer than we do. Yet we also have the power to make sure birds continue to sing.
Fitzpatrick pointed to the data from around the world that impassioned birdwatchers are feeding to scientists at websites such as – which is growing by 40 percent a year – so they can map birds in real time. Citizen science is part of the reason, for instance, that waterfowl numbers have been bouncing back in North America as people band together to protect and restore wetlands.
“Birds do recover,” Fitzpatrick said, “if we pay attention to what they’re saying.”
In “A Fable for Tomorrow,” the opening chapter of Silent Spring that describes a fictional, nightmarish, poisoned town, Carson wrote, “It was a spring without voices. On the mornings that had once throbbed with the dawn chorus of robins, catbirds, doves, jays, wrens, and scores of other bird voices there was now no sound; only silence lay over the fields and woods and marsh.”
Muted, perhaps, but not silenced, birds keep sending us winged warnings.

Published in conjunction with
For questions or feedback about this piece, contact Editor in Chief Marla Cone at
Read more about author Alanna Mitchell. Follow her on twitter here.

Global map: 50 birds at risk

South Atlantic Ocean
Atlantic Ocean
South Pacific Ocean
North Pacific 
Indian Ocean
Southern Ocean
Pacific Ocean
Arctic Ocean
Bald eagles were on the edge of extinction in the 1970s due to eggshell thinning from the pesticide DDT. Most have recovered, but eagles on Catalina Island, off Los Angeles, remain highly contaminated with DDT from an ocean deposit.
Bald eagle  
Status: Least concern
Status: Least concern
These birds of prey are used as indicators of environmental troubles. They nearly became extinct from DDT, and in the Columbia River, they sent warning signals about dioxins. Now they are monitored for flame retardants and other chemicals.
This long-winged seabird with pink legs and feet was thought to be extinct until 18 nesting pairs were discovered in 1951. About 250 individuals now remain. Threats include rats, hurricane flooding and light pollution.
Bermuda petrel
Status: Endangered
This nocturnal seabird breeds on California’s Channel and Farallon Islands. It was nearly wiped out by the pesticide DDT. Now threats include warming waters, ocean acidification, sea-level rise, light pollution and rats. About 10,000 remain.
Ashy storm-petrel 
Status: Endangered
Nesting on sandy beaches, this shorebird is protected as an endangered species in the Great Lakes area. They abandon their nests if people are nearby. Dams, flooding, development and disturbance of beaches are among its threats.
Piping plover
Status: Near-threatened
Formerly common, this long-billed brown and white songbird declined rapidly on Mexico’s Cozumel Island after a hurricane in 1988. Fewer than 50 remain. Future hurricanes may wipe out remaining populations.
Cozumel thrasher
Status: Critically endangered
Occupying just two locations in central Mexico, fewer than 15,000 of these gray-and-white sparrows are left in the wild. Threats include burning of grassy meadows for grazing pasture and loss of habitat to agriculture.
Sierra Madre sparrow
Status: Endangered
This little red songbird makes its home in the tropical forests of Brazil and Guyana. Forest loss and heavy use of fertilizers and pesticides on rice plantations are threats. An estimated 5,000 remain.
Hoary-throated spinetail
Status: Critically endangered
These parakeets in Colombia’s Sierra Nevada mountains are endangered by the destruction of 85 percent of their forest habitat. Herbicide was used and forests were cleared for cattle and tree crops. A few thousand remain.
Santa Marta parakeet
Status: Endangered  
Scientists discovered from monitoring the loud songs of these cinnamon-colored birds along a river in Virginia that mercury from industrial pollution alters the songs of songbirds. They inhabit woods throughout the eastern U.S.
Carolina wren
Status: Least concern
This small brown songbird breeds from the spruce-fir forests of northern New England to the Canadian Maritimes, and it winters in the Caribbean. Threats include acid rain, loss of forest habitat and climate change. Around 100,000 remain. 
Bicknell’s thrush
Status: Vulnerable
The population of this seabird, which inhabits only Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean, has shrunk to 6,000, a drop of up to one-half. One-third of its nesting space has been clear-cut for mines. Extreme climate events and introduced ants also are threats.
Abbott’s booby 
Status: Endangered
This deep-diving black-and-white seabird breeds on cliff crevices in the Atlantic, including Newfoundland, Iceland and the United Kingdom. Threats include commercial fishing, predators and oil spills. Females lay only one egg per year.
Status: Least concern
Breeding mostly on cliffs in Great Britain, this seabird has an extremely long migration. Its population is large but decreasing, possibly due to hunting and rats. Many North Atlantic seabirds are threatened by changing ocean conditions.
Manx shearwater 
Status: Least concern
Breeding in the Arctic, this gull is threatened by changing sea ice in its wintering grounds. Mercury also is a threat; one Canada colony had among the highest levels ever found in seabirds. An estimated 19,000-27,000 remain, mostly in Russia.
Ivory gull  
Status: Near threatened
Nesting in the Hawaiian Islands, these seabirds are frequent visitors to the West Coast. Bycatch from long-line fishing is their biggest threat, although pesticides, metals, plastics, sea-level rise and rats are threats, too. About 64,000 pairs remain.
Black-footed albatross  
Status: Near threatened
This diving seabird breeds in the North Atlantic and North Pacific. Populations have been rapidly shrinking recently, and scientists suspect it and other northern seabirds are threatened by changing oceanic conditions.
Common guillemot (murre)
Status: Least concern
This seabird has the longest migration on Earth, from the Arctic to the Antarctic. On Iceland’s Flatey Island, they haven’t produced viable chicks in a decade. Scientists think fundamental changes in oceans, such as warming, are to blame.
Arctic tern    
Status: Least concern
This black and white auk breeds on narrow cliffs on islands off Iceland, Greenland, Arctic Norway and Newfoundland. Populations have declined recently in all colonies. Scientists suspect oceanic changes, such as ice conditions and food supply.
Brünnich's guillemot 
Status: Least concern
Found off Alaska and Siberia, this small seabird nests mostly on mountaintops. Only 30,000 to 57,000 remain. The melting of glaciers is a major threat. Up to 15 percent of the Prince William Sound population died during the 1989 Exxon-Valdez oil spill. 
Kittlitz’s murrelet  
Status: Near threatened
This seabird nests on Japan’s Torishima Island. The global population is estimated at 2,300. Unstable soil, an active volcano, typhoons and halibut and cod longline fisheries are its threats.
Short-tailed albatross    
Status: Vulnerable
This seabird nests on islands near Antarctica. Longline fisheries have rapidly reduced its populations. It migrates to high latitudes and feeds on squid in the open ocean. About 95,000 breeding pairs remain.
Grey-headed albatross
Status: Endangered
These songbirds are stable throughout North America, but for years in a mid-Michigan town they have died from DDT poisoning from an old chemical plant that is a Superfund site. Their DDT levels are among the highest ever found in wildlife.
American robin
Status: Least concern
Existing only on Réunion Island in the Indian Ocean, this songbird has poor reproductive success. Only one small population of about 25 pairs remains. There are twice as many males as females for unknown reasons. Threats include rats and cats. 
Réunion cuckooshrike
Status: Critically 
These common little songbirds have an extremely large range, but many in Alaska have deformed beaks that develop when they are six months old. Scientists have been trying for 15 years to figure out the cause.
Black-capped chickadee
Status: Least concern
Natives of the Seychelles Islands in the Indian Ocean, fewer than 200 of these big black-and-white robins remain, though their numbers are increasing. Pesticides, predation and loss of habitat to agriculture are major threats.
Seychelles magpie-robin
Status: Endangered
A tiny population of these large-headed, short-tailed songbirds lives in a small area of grasslands in Ethiopia. Fewer than 390 individuals remain. Threats include loss of grasslands to livestock and crops, as well as severe drought. It could soon be extinct.
Liben lark
Status: Critically endangered
This gray-brown songbird occupies parts of coastal Australia. Around 1,000 adults remain. Wildfires are its main threat, but predation by foxes and cats as well as dieback of vegetation due to plant pathogens also are threats.
Western bristlebird
Status: Endangered
Inhabiting a tiny, 3.5-square-mile area of mountain forests in Kenya, only about 1,400 of these dark, orange-billed songbirds remain. Forest clearing and a skewed sex ratio (only 10 percent are female) threaten their survival.
Taita thrush
Status: Critically endangered
Mallee emu-wren 
Status: Endangered
This tiny, colorful songbird’s habitat in Australia is small and fragmented due to clearance for agriculture, so it is threatened by wildfires and drought. About 15,000 remain. It inhabits grasslands within pine and eucalyptus woodlands.
This black, red and white songbird was ubiquitous in California’s Central Valley in the 1930s, but then lost much of its habitat to agriculture. California’s drought poses an extreme threat. Its population has plummeted 44 percent since 2011.
Tricoloured blackbird 
Status: Endangered
These huge, red-headed black and white birds of prey were declared extinct in the wild in 1987. About 200 wild condors now inhabit California and Arizona. Their recovery is threatened by lead poisoning from gut piles left by hunters.
California condor
Status: Critically Endangered
Loss of grasslands and contaminants in Arctic breeding grounds and South American winter grounds are suspected in this shorebird’s decline. Now 16,000 to 84,000 remain, after they were nearly hunted to extinction in the early 1900s.
Buff-breasted sandpiper   
Status: Near threatened
This shorebird breeds in the Arctic but lives on sandy beaches such as Delaware Bay in the spring and the tip of South America in the winter. Harvesting of horseshoe crabs may be responsible for its decline.
Red knot   
Status: Least concern
These large ducks inhabit remote Arctic areas. A 90-percent decline was reported in Alaska’s Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, likely due to poisoning from lead shot. They remain plentiful in Russia. Warming Arctic temperatures also are a threat.
Spectacled eider 
Status: Least concern
At five-feet long, trumpeter swans are the largest North American waterfowl. They are sensitive to lead poisoning and large numbers in Washington and British Columbia have died from swallowing lead in fields and wetlands. 
Trumpeter swan 
Status: Least concern
These flightless, long-necked grebes live only in Peru’s Lake Junin. About 200 remain. A hydroelectric plant for mines dried out its nesting and foraging areas. Pollution from the mines also reportedly is killing them.
Junin grebe
Status: Critically endangered
A stocky duck with a large bill, the males are all black with striking white eye rings. Baltic Sea populations have suffered rapid declines. Threats aren’t clear but pollution and habitat degradation are possible culprits.
Velvet scoter 
Status: Endangered
Tens of millions of vultures in Southeast Asia, 99.9 percent, began dying from kidney failure in the 1990s caused by an anti-inflammatory drug used on livestock. The drug is now banned there but it still is killing vultures in Europe, particularly Spain.
White-rumped vulture
Status: Critically endangered
Peregrine falcon
Status: Least concern
These powerful, fast birds of prey have recovered from DDT-driven population crashes. But now they are highly contaminated with brominated flame retardants. In Sweden, their brood size declines with increasing levels of these chemicals.
Only about 130 breeding pairs remain, exclusively on Réunion Island off the coast of Madagascar. They have been pushed into habitat that is not ideal as islanders cut down the forest for crops and towns. Some are killed by rat poisons. 
Réunion harrier
Status: Endangered
Anjouan scops-owl   
Status: Critically endangered
Endemic to the Comoro Islands off the southeast coast of Africa, only 100 to 200 pairs of these small, dark-colored owls remain because upland forests have been cleared for agriculture, timber extraction and charcoal manufacturing. 
This falcon inhabits steppes and dry grasslands of central Asia and Europe. It is undergoing a rapid decline due to capture for the falconry trade, pesticide use in Mongolia and loss of habitat. Population estimated at 12,800 to 30,800.
Saker falcon 
Status: Endangered
This large owl is rapidly declining because of logging of riverine forest, fish overharvesting, dam construction and pollution in Russia’s Far East and China. Only a few thousand remain. They also hit power lines and drown in fish-farm nets.
Blakiston’s fish-owl
Status: Endangered
Only about 130 of this black, long-legged shorebird remain. It breeds on riverbeds in New Zealand. It is preyed on by cats and rats, and its habitat has been lost to agriculture and hydroelectric development. Eggs now are reared in captivity.
Black stilt   
Status: Critically endangered
This long-billed shorebird is declining because of coastal wetlands loss in Asia due to industry and aquaculture. It breeds in Eastern Russia, where oil pipeline development is expected, and winters in Southeast Asia. Only 500 to 1,000 remain.
Spotted greenshank 
Status: Endangered
A secretive, night-feeding duck with a whitish head that contrasts its dark body, they have a small, fragmented population in Southeast Asia that has decreased because crucial river habitats have been disturbed. 
White-winged duck 
Status: Endangered
Half of the breeding spots for this duck, largely in Russia and Kazakhstan, have been drained for agriculture and other uses. Climate change is worsening droughts there and drying out lakes. Lead shot, fishing nets and predators also are threats.
White-headed duck 
Status: Endangered
These penguins sport bright yellow eyebrows and spiky black head feathers. Found in the South Atlantic and Indian Ocean, many populations have crashed due to fishing, warming oceans and past egg collection. Numbers are down 57 percent.
Northern rockhopper penguin   
Status: Endangered
Inhabiting only Africa, from Namibia to South Africa, its populations have crashed, dropping 61 percent. The biggest threat is a food shortage, likely from commercial fishing of sardines and anchovies. About 26,000 pairs remain.
African penguin
Status: Endangered
Source: BirdLife International, Environmental Health News   Map by Leslie Carlson

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