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Who Needs Nature and Birds?

With humanity's expanding population and continuing quest for a better life, we have never needed nature more than we do today. And, birds are an integral part of the web of life. Birds are everywhere around us; birds are present in our daily lives. Over 9,000 bird species exist worldwide, with 1,400 inhabiting our North American landscapes from southern Mexico to the Canadian Arctic. By country, species number about 1,000 in Mexico, 900 in the U.S., and 600 in Canada, with more than 250 species migrating across the three countries.

Wild birds are essential components of healthy, functioning natural systems. They provide us with "free ecological services." Birds are voracious eaters of weed plants and farm rodents, they help keep insect populations under control, and pollinate and disseminate seeds. Diverse bird populations reflect the underlying health of the ecosystem in which they - and we - live. As an indicator species, birds can help us learn about the natural biological processes that produce the food, fiber, water and minerals we humans need to survive - and how we can manage the earth's resources to provide a sustainable future for all.

Birds are also becoming economically important as well. Bird watching is the fastest-growing form of outdoor recreation in the United States, up 155 percent in the last ten years, with more than 71 million Americans describing themselves as interested in birding. People travel to see birds, buy backyard bird feeders, plant gardens for birds and spend money to support bird research and protect bird habitat. Most birders are "baby-boomers," educated, with above average incomes, and they are willing to spend money to watch birds.

Washington is blessed with a rich diversity of birds and bird habitat. From deep marine waters off the continental shelf to alpine meadows high in the Cascades, from soggy coastal rainforests to arid interior deserts, our state supports an extraordinary variety and abundance of birds. Climate and soils, lava flows, glaciers, erosion, and native plant communities have built a wealth of vibrant habitats for birds. Located on the Pacific Flyway migration route, Washington is regularly home to more than 320 species of birds during the year.

Yet, even as bird enthusiasts grow, bird populations are declining. Loss of habitat, pollution, pesticides, chemical and oil spills, invasive non-native plant and animal species, over-hunting, collision with buildings and other structures and predation by uncontrolled cats and dogs - all these are threats to birds in North America and Washington state. But the primary reason, by far, is loss of bird habitat from human population growth and alteration of the landscape.

Washington's human population has more than doubled in the past 50 years, increasing from 2.4 million people in 1950 to 6 million in 2001. By the middle of the 21st century, our population is expected to double from today: this means adding 29 more cities the size of Tacoma or Spokane!

To better understand the status of our bird populations, Audubon Washington is creating a State of the Birds Report. In doing so they analyzed a wide range of information, including scientific literature and personal interviews. This report examines the conservation status of 317 species of birds that occur in Washington in sufficient numbers to allow meaningful conservation. (The actual number of birds visiting Washington is about 400). They analyzed the bird populations to determine if they were healthy or having trouble surviving. Out of the 317 birds analyzed, Audubon Washington found that 97 species are listed on international, national, state, or non-profit organizations "watch lists". This means that 30% of our birds are in trouble our state.

After identifying the 97 birds in trouble, the science team divided the birds into nine habitats that the birds most often frequent. Then the birds were listed in "A, B, C" categories to give some priority to the species within those habitats with "A" listed birds being the most critical. However, because all birds from the A, Band C categories are from the list of "97 Birds in Trouble," all species should be taken seriously for conservation. The report categorizes 16 species as A, 34 as B, and 47 as C. For a complete listing see the Audubon Washington web site

Dan Kinney