Important Contributions to Waterbird Conservation in the 20th Century

Christmas Bird Count participants in the Mid-Cape Count in 2005
Hilary Wood
Christmas Bird Count participants in the Mid-Cape Count in 2005

Conservation of waterbird populations in the U.S. has come about via many routes, many of which are associated with the direct protection of waterbird habitats and the management of the resources within. Successful approaches to waterbird conservation during the 20th century have involved the passing of important legislation, the foundation of conservation organizations, the banning of the use of contaminants known to be deleterious to waterbirds (and other wildlife), the implementation of hunting regulations, the development of the science of Conservation Biology, and the evolution of Citizen Science. Of the very many important contributions to the conservation of waterbirds over the last hundred years, a few are summarized below.


Certainly, the passage of protective laws at national and state levels has contributed greatly to waterbird conservation. Such laws have paved the way for the funding, implementation, and enforcement of species and habitat protection, and resource management. Some of these laws establish programs that fund habitat conservation and restoration, and others protect waterbirds by prohibiting people from killing or capturing wild birds except under strict hunting and permit regulations. Please see our Waterbird Conservation Legislation page for summaries of some of the most significant related federal legislation.

Habitat Protection

All birds require suitable foraging, nesting, roosting, and wintering habitat, and many require dependable migratory stop-over sites. Habitat loss and degradation are unarguably the most important factors underlying the declines of many waterbird species, and thus habitat protection has been at the core of many successful conservation programs. On a national level, the importance of the establishment of the National Wildlife Refuge System (NWRS) is almost unparalleled. Founded in 1903, when President Theodore Roosevelt named Pelican Island - along Florida's central Atlantic coast - the first unit of the system, NWRS currently encompasses 545 national wildlife refuges, 37 wetland management districts, and approximately 3,000 waterfowl production areas, on almost 100 million acres (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 2006a). Federal Duck Stamps are a vital part of NWRS; ninety-eight cents out of every dollar generated by the sales of Duck Stamps goes directly to purchase or lease wetland habitat for protection in the Refuge System. Since 1934, sales of Federal Duck Stamps to hunters, stamp collectors, and other conservationists have raised more than $700 million that has been used to acquire more than 5.2 million acres of habitat for the National Wildlife Refuges System (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 2006b).

Foundation of Conservation Organizations

Non-profits have been instrumental in protecting birds and their habitats, conducting research, and assuming leadership roles in bird conservation. Of the very many non-profits that have contributed greatly to the conservation of birds in the 20th century, three stand out for their work on behalf of waterbirds:

  • The National Audubon Society was initially founded, in large part, in response to the slaughter of millions of waterbirds, particularly egrets and other waders, for the millenary trade.  Audubon has continued to persevere in efforts to conserve and restore waterbirds and their habitats, through science-based goals and on-the-ground practices. 
  • The Nature Conservancy (TNC) was founded in 1951 to "preserve the plants, animals and natural communities that represent the diversity of life on Earth by protecting the lands and waters they need to survive." TNC works in all 50 United States and 27 countries, and has protected more than 117 million acres of land and 5,000 miles of river around the world (The Nature Conservancy 2006).
  • Ducks Unlimited (DU) was founded by a group of waterfowl hunters in 1937 in response to the loss of untold numbers of acres of wetland habitat fueled by the winds that created the Dust Bowl. DU spends 87% of the revenue it raises via its sportsman constituency directly on its conservation mission, and has conserved more than 10 million acres of habitat across North America in areas that are important to ducks and geese.

Banning DDT

DDT was developed as the first of the modern insecticides early in World War II. It was initially used with great effect to combat malaria, typhus, and other insect-borne human diseases among both military and civilian populations. By the late 1940s, this persistent broad-spectrum "miracle" pesticide came into wide agricultural and commercial usage - in 1959, nearly 80 million pounds of DDT were applied domestically (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency 2006). DDT was subsequently identified as the cause of the precipitous declines during the 1950s and 1960s of several birds that fed at the top of water-based food chains, e.g., Brown and White Pelicans, Peregrine Falcons, Osprey, and Bald Eagles. DDT was being incorporated into the bodies of fish living in run-off areas and ingested by avian predators; it caused the thinning of eggshells and resulted in eggs being crushed during incubation. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency banned the use of DDT in the United States in 1972, and every one of the above-mentioned species has recovered significantly (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency 2000).

Implementation of Hunting Regulations

Historically, states independently controlled hunting practices until the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA; 1918) enacted the Migratory Bird Convention (see our Waterbird Conservation Legislation page for more information on the MBTA). States now work together with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to establish annual hunting regulations for each "flyway." Within those broad limits, states can set open/close areas to hunting, and set dates and daily bag limits. For more information on the federal regulatory process and state guidelines, see USFWS' Hunting Web page.

The Science of Conservation Biology

Conservation biology blends principles and experiences from the biological sciences, natural resource management, and the social sciences, including economics. The focus of conservation science is the study of phenomena that affect the maintenance, loss, and restoration of biological diversity, and the use of such information in applied approaches to biodiversity conservation. Through the engagement of scientists, educators, resource managers, government and private conservation workers, businesses, communities, and citizens, Conservation Biology has changed the face of approaches to protect, enhance, and restore natural areas and wildlife populations.

Citizen Science

To a greater degree every year, conservation scientists are tapping into the power of citizen science - the partnership between the public and professional scientists. Growing ranks of birders are contributing to the collection of data on bird population trends and the status of important bird habitats. Citizen Science is a win-win situation for all involved; the empowerment of citizens with knowledge about the natural world enables individuals to take action on behalf of species and places warranting protection, and the data collected by citizens - the world's largest research team - enhances conservation efforts of all kinds. Please see Audubon's Bird and Get Outside Web pages for more information on how you can become involved.


The Nature Conservancy. 2006. About Us. (accessed 5/25/06)

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. 2000. Bird Conservation.Basics of Bird Conservation in the U.S. (accessed 6/8/06)

U.S. Environmental Agency. 2006. History. DDT Ban Takes Effect. (accessed 6/8/06)

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 2006a. America's National Wildlife Refuge System. Letter from the Chief. (accessed 5/25/06)

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 2006b. The Federal Duck Stamp Program. (accessed 5/25/06)