Conservation Status of Waterbirds

There is good and bad news on the waterbird conservation front. On the bright side, many of the waterbirds that breed in the U.S. have done relatively well in the last 20 years, largely because of an infusion of funding into wetland protection and other types of conservation programs. Yet habitat destruction continues to outpace protection, and many North American waterbirds have yet to rebound from the cumulative effects of 300 years of wetland loss since European settlement. Waterbird populations face innumerable other threats associated with human choices and behaviors. Many species of seabirds and shorebirds are of particularly high conservation concern.


                      Of 265 species of North American waterbirds:


Waterbird population trend data indicate that many species are in decline. Results from analyses of long-term data (from 1966-2004) from both Audubon's Christmas Bird Count (CBC) and the United States Geological Survey's Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) suggest that almost one-third of waterbird species are experiencing decreases in population size, some more so than others:

  • 49 (23%) of the 212 NA waterbird species covered by the CBC are "Declining" - the equivalent to a loss of 15% over a 30-year period.
  • 16 (8%) of the 212 CBC species are "Significantly Declining" - the equivalent to a loss of 50% over 30 years.
  • 30 (25%) of the 121 NA waterbird species covered by the BBS are "Declining."
  • 11 (9%) of the 121 BBS species are "Significantly Declining."

Because of the diversity of human-mediated and natural threats to the viability of many waterbird populations, conservation efforts are varied. Yet because habitat loss, degradation, and fragmentation are the most serious threats facing most populations, many approaches to conservation involve the protection, restoration, or enhancement of breeding, molting, wintering, or migratory stopover areas.

Results from analyses of CBC and BBS data from 1966-2004 are encouraging:

  • Population sizes of 62 (29%) of 212 CBC species and 28 (23%) of BBS species have increased by the equivalent of 15% over a 30-year period.
  • Population sizes of 56 (26%) of 212 CBC species and 32 (27%) of 121 BBS species have increased "significantly" - the equivalent of an increase of 50% over a 30-year period.
  • Population trends for an additional 29 (14%) of 212 CBC species and 20 (17%) of 121 BBS species have been stable.

Species-specific success stories reflect the dependence of waterbirds on clean water and its associated habitats, and the beneficial effects of targeted conservation programs.

For example:

  • Piping Plover numbers have increased from approximately 1266 pairs in 1987 (Haig 1992) to approximately 3200 pairs in 2005 (Birdlife International 2006) because of successful habitat protection and management practices.
  • The recovery of Brown Pelicans has come about because of Endangered Species Act protections and the banning of the use of DDT in the U.S.
  • Hunted to dangerously low numbers and threatened by habitat loss, American Black Ducks are experiencing the beneficial effects of regulated hunting and the protection of thousands of hectares of habitat from 1986-1998 (NAS 2002).

Please see our: 

  • Issues and Answers pages for further information on threats facing North American waterbirds and approaches to mediating population declines.
  • The Species pages for detailed information on species-specific population trends and conservation threats.
  • Conservation Projects pages for insight into some successful efforts of the past and present to protect North American waterbirds.


Birdlife International. 2006. Piping Plover - Birdlife Species Factsheet. (accessed 3/31/06)

Haig, SM. 1992. Piping Plover. In the Birds of North America, No. 2. (A Poole, P Stettenheim, and F Gill, Eds.) Philadelphia: The Academy of Natural Sciences; Washington DC: The American Ornithologist's Union.

Lepage, C. and D. Bordage. 2003. Black Duck Joint Venture (BDJV). Environment Canada, Canadian Wildlife Service, Quebec Region. Annual Report 2003.) (accessed 4/3/06)

Longcore, JR, and DA Clugston. 2006. American Black Duck. U.S. Geological Survey, Status and Trends of the Nation's Biological Resources. () (accessed 4/3/06)

National Audubon Society. 2002. American Black Duck. Audubon Watchlist, (accessed 4/3/06)

Santa Barbara Wildlife Care Network. 2006. The Pelican Project: A Success Story. (accessed 4/3/06)

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 2006a. Endangered Species: Brown Pelican. (accessed 4/3/06)

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 2006b. Species Profile: Brown Pelican. Status Details (accessed 4/3/06)