North American waterbirds are a diverse group of beautiful species that share with us numerous and various freshwater and marine habitats. Their important roles in the functioning of aquatic ecosystems make them sensitive indicators of the health of these environments so important to many species, including our own. Throughout history, these birds have enriched and supported human existence and experience in many ways - economically, culturally, and aesthetically.
Waterbird conservation has been a part of Audubon's heritage since its inception more than a century ago. We invite you to explore these web pages to learn about waterbird species, the conservation issues that they confront on today's landscape and conservation projects of the past and present that address these issues.
What Are Waterbirds?
Different organizations define “waterbirds” differently. In general, the term describes a diverse group of birds that are ecologically tied to bodies of water for some part or parts of their lives. Included also in some definitions are several “taxonomic waterbirds” - species without ties to aquatic habitats but which are members of bird families otherwise considered to be waterbirds.
Audubon defines waterbirds broadly and inclusively: all birds predominantly associated with water, either ecologically or taxonomically. By the criteria of all organizations, loons, grebes, pelicans, cormorants, bitterns, egrets, herons, ibises, rails, coots, gulls, terns, and skimmers are waterbirds. We include in our definition waterfowl (ducks and geese), shorebirds (oystercatchers, stilts, plovers, sandpipers, and phalaropes), and seabirds (albatrosses, petrels, shearwaters, murrelets, auklets, and puffins), which are considered by some to be separate groups. We also include other species of birds that are affiliated with water and wetland habitats, such as ospreys, kingfishers, and several kinds of passerines (e.g., some species of flycatchers, swallows, warblers, sparrows, and blackbirds), even though their families are not generally associated with bodies of water.
Our focus is on the conservation of native North American waterbirds; species that breed, winter, or migrate across the continental landscape. We exclude species that have been introduced, species that visit only occasionally, and species whose geographic ranges include North America only at the edges. In other words, we consider as North American waterbirds any species that could be affected by changes to continental aquatic habitats, i.e., those species for which we have a “conservation responsibility.”
Why Are Waterbirds Important?
Birds are crucial to the healthy functioning of many natural systems on Earth. Birds of all kinds have played important roles in human history, yet waterbirds share with us special, intimate relationships based on admiration, imagination, exploitation, and the watery habitats we both require or enjoy. The importance of these species ranges from the biological niches they occupy to nutrition, income, and aesthetic inspiration.
First and foremost, waterbirds play an integral role in a variety of ecosystems. They are recyclers, predators, and prey. Because they require water and associated habitat of adequate quality and quantity, their successes or declines are indicative of the health of environments.
Throughout our long association, waterbirds – both wild and domestic - have fed and warmed men and women with their flesh and feathers. Humans have been so inspired by waterbirds that they have incorporated them into their religions; made them symbols of nations, states, and regions; and painted, photographed, and sculpted them in an effort to capture their beauty and mystique.
Today, waterbirds are big business. Domestic waterbirds provide the world with meat, eggs, feathers, and down. Bird hunting and bird watching together are a $35 billion industry. On the other hand, waterbirds occasionally compete with humans for resources, and are thus sometimes reviled for their consumption of our crops and aquacultural products.
Finally, with increasing frequency, waterbirds and other birds provide us with insights into the workings of the natural world. Studies of avian evolution, inheritance, learning, population dynamics, flight, hormonal activity, gene expression, brain mapping, and behavior are providing us with answers to questions that have intrigued us for centuries.
For all of these reasons, waterbirds are of special interest to everyone concerned with conservation and environmental health.