Nature & Outdoors

Photo by Ryan O’Keven

Birding: The State of Our Birds

By Curtis Smalling

One of the most frequently asked questions I get is, “How are our birds doing?” That is, of course, a complicated question, but one that does have some answers. Fortunately, many folks, agencies, and volunteers spend a lot of time counting birds and we know a great deal about some and a little less about others. It might be interesting to summarize some of the current State of NC’s Birds for you.

Most often, we tend to think of the birds we see during the breeding or nesting season as the species we can help the most through our management actions or how we maintain our habitats on which they depend. Fortunately, for a majority of our nesting species, we have some long running data sets that can help tell us how populations of most species are faring. These “Breeding Bird Surveys,” as they are known, have been conducted on established twenty-five-mile routes for almost sixty years in some cases. This is a national effort, and here in NC about 170 species have enough data to estimate their long term trends and their annual rates of decline or increase. Of these, about a fourth of species (23%) are considered stable (those are species whose annual trend numbers are less than one-half of one percent change per year), 43% are increasing, and 33% are declining.

As you might expect, the species that are doing the best tend to be those that like what we do to the environment as we build or fragment the forest, and include species like our biggest winner, Canada Goose. But some others you might notice as increasing include House Finch, Tree Swallow, and Wild Turkey. Some coastal species have done well, including Brown Pelican, White Ibis, Laughing Gull, and Osprey. Bald Eagles, Wood Storks, and Mississippi Kites are also improving.

A few of the stable species include some of our most common birds like Carolina Chickadee, Eastern Phoebe, and Downy Woodpecker. Some of our woodland birds, also in this more or less stable group, include Ovenbird, Ruffed Grouse, and Acadian Flycatcher.

For the declining species, the biggest losses have been some that we often hear about from folks voicing their concerns over their declines. Once common and now rare birds include Northern Bobwhite, Eastern Whip-poor-will, and Common Tern. Even some birds that are still fairly widespread and common are experiencing big declines, including Eastern Meadowlark, House Sparrow, and Wood Thrush. As a group, the declining species are found in all major habitats, suggesting that each has its own set of challenges that may be habitat related, but could also include other reasons, as well, like competition, climate change, or other factors.

The good news is that a large number of people and agencies are working hard to help these declining birds and to keep others stable. The US Fish and Wildlife Service, NC Wildlife Resources Commission, and Audubon and its partners have numerous projects and initiatives to help birds.

Visit for ways you can help and to learn more about bird conservation in North Carolina. You can make a difference for birds in your own yards and woods and fields. With your help, we can keep moving more and more species from declining to stable or increasing!

Curtis Smalling is a Boone resident and the Director of Conservation for Audubon North Carolina.

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