Using high-performance computing techniques and more than 600,000 bird checklists from citizen-science participants, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and partners have produced the nation's first assessment of birds on public lands. Presented in the 2011 State of the Birds report, the analysis found that more than 300 bird species have 50 percent or more of their U.S. distribution on public lands, highlighting the tremendous potential for conservation.

Publicly owned lands and waters account for more than one-third of U.S. lands and all of the country's oceans. The report will help public agencies identify species with high potential for conservation on the lands that they manage. The United States has about 1,000 bird species, 251 of which are threatened, endangered or of conservation concern.

The report emphasizes urgent needs for increased protection and management by public agencies to prevent extinction of many island species, buffer forest and arid land species from urban development and agriculture. It also cites the need to protect severely declining ocean birds and balance the nation's need for resources through logging, mining and energy extraction with conservation.

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2011 State of the Birds report

"Birds are excellent indicators of the health of the environment, including the human environment," said Kenneth V. Rosenberg, director of conservation science at the Cornell Lab. "The report highlights the tremendous responsibility public agencies have for conserving birds and their habitats."

Fifteen public and private organizations collaborated on the report, with Cornell Lab staff playing major roles in the scientific analysis and publication. The team generated novel bird distribution maps by combining the Protected Areas Database of the United States with bird observations from, a citizen-science project of the Cornell Lab and National Audubon Society. The Cornell Institute for Computational Sustainability, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and DataONE helped lead the analyses, which required 70,000 hours of supercomputer time on the National Science Foundation's TeraGrid.

Other key findings:

  • Maps show that most public land is in the western U.S., with very little in the east. Due to these discrepancies, western forest and arid and desert birds have high distributions on public lands, so public agencies bear responsibility for including wildlife needs in management plans. At the same time, eastern public lands need strong protection from development as they are often the largest blocks of remaining forests surrounded by expanding urban landscapes.
  • Less than 2 percent of grassland is publicly owned and managed primarily to maintain natural habitats. Grassland birds are among the nation's fastest declining species, making conservation on grasslands a high priority.
  • The most endangered birds are found on islands, with one third of all birds listed under the Endangered Species Act living in Hawaii. Intensive management and the removal of invasive species are critical there and in Puerto Rico and other U.S. islands.
  • U.S. marine waters are home to 86 ocean bird species and 173 coastal species, though invasive species, fisheries, human disturbance and development and pollution are stressing these ecosystems. More than 1,600 Marine Protected Areas conserve essential areas.
  • The United States has done very well in acquiring and managing wetlands, contributing to an increase in wetland birds over the last 40 years. National Wildlife Refuges and such places as Florida's Evergades provide more than 150 million acres managed for 700 birds species, including ducks, geese and shorebirds.

The State of the Birds report was made possible in part by funding from the National Science Foundation and Leon Levy Foundation.