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The number of birds has declined in America's habitats, except wetlands

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

Over the past half-century, this sound has become more scarce in forests in the western U.S.

(SOUNDBITE OF PINYON JAY CHIRPING)

PFEIFFER: The pinyon jay has lost half its population since 1970, and it's on track to lose another half in the next 50 years. That's according to the 2022 State of the Birds report out today. The report says about 70 bird species in the U.S. share the pinyon jay's fate. It found bird declines in every single habitat except our country's wetlands. Corina Newsome of the National Wildlife Federation is one of the scientists behind that report, and she's here to tell us more. Corina, welcome.

CORINA NEWSOME: Hi. Thank you so much for having me.

PFEIFFER: Why are we losing so many birds?

NEWSOME: There are a number of factors that influence bird declines, but one of the biggest ones is issues related to habitat degradation or fragmentation. But there are a number of issues that intersect with that, such as climate change, that has a number of impacts depending on where birds are located, such as in grasslands or in forests or on the coast, for example.

PFEIFFER: The report does have some good news, which is that birds are thriving in wetlands. Why are wetlands a different scenario?

NEWSOME: Well, this is actually one of the reasons for hope that the report points to and that increase that we're seeing in wetland birds, especially our ducks, our waterfowl, is a result of investment in conservation targeted to help increase the population of birds like ducks. Those ducks, those waterfowl, those birds that live in wetland environments, are a clear indication that when we put our minds to it and our money to it, conservation can work for birds.

PFEIFFER: What are the things humans did that helped ducks that might help other types of bird species?

NEWSOME: So, for example, we put legislation in place to help ensure that wetlands were protected and that the pollution and degradation that they were seeing from human activities were no longer permitted in the ways that they used to be. We were seeing protection around bird populations and species of birds. And there are lots of pieces of legislation that are coming down the pipe that are making their way through Congress right now that will have incredible impacts for wildlife as we are navigating a changing world.

PFEIFFER: We mentioned at the beginning that the pinyon jay is a type of bird with a shrinking population. For people who've never heard of this bird, let alone seen it, how do you explain why it matters to them that its population is vanishing?

NEWSOME: Well, birds very much can be thought of as, no pun intended, the canary in the coal mine, right? So the trajectory of birds, even if it's a bird you've never seen before or may not be familiar with or may know nothing about, those birds actually depend on the same resources that you depend on to have a healthy life - clean air, clean water, clean soil. The health of the birds points to our health, and the future of the birds points to our future.

PFEIFFER: Corina, is there a favorite bird that you in particular are worried about losing?

NEWSOME: So one of the birds that I care very much about and worried about losing into the future is a bird that I study called the seaside sparrow, which resides in coastal marshes. But the seaside sparrow is a bird that when you look at it, it doesn't stand out, so to speak, right? It doesn't have a bunch of bright colors, which people tend to be drawn to. They're covered in beautiful shades of brown. They've got a little splash of yellow on their face, but they have such incredible adaptations for surviving in what is actually a pretty extreme environment. Their eggs can actually survive underwater for about 30 minutes without drowning.

PFEIFFER: Oh really?

NEWSOME: They have so many adaptations that just blow my mind. So I care very much about that bird, and they've taught me a lot about the world around me.

PFEIFFER: So they're tough little creatures.

NEWSOME: They sure are (laughter).

PFEIFFER: That's Corina Newsome. She's an associate conservation scientist with the National Wildlife Federation. Thank you very much.

NEWSOME: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Linah Mohammad
Prior to joining NPR in 2022, Mohammad was a producer on The Washington Post's daily flagship podcast Post Reports, where her work was recognized by multiple awards. She was honored with a Peabody award for her work on an episode on the life of George Floyd.
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.
Sacha Pfeiffer is a correspondent for NPR's Investigations team and an occasional guest host for some of NPR's national shows.