All-American Birds

The bald eagle may be the symbol of our country--but these bird species are the only ones that live solely within our borders

08-01-2004 // Cynthia Berger
All-American Birds magazine layout

In 1782 AMERICA'S founding fathers picked the bald eagle for the symbol of their new nation. Not everyone was pleased: In a letter to his daughter, Ben Franklin famously grumped that the eagle is "a bird of bad moral character" and that the wild turkey would make a better choice. He considered it "a much more respectable bird, and withal a true original native of America."

Actually, both turkeys and bald eagles are native to the Americas. But if the issue is a bird that represents our nation, flag-waving Americans can't really claim the eagle or the turkey, since both are found in Canada and Mexico as well.

What birds can we claim as our own? We put the question to the experts: Van Remsen, a member of the American Ornithologists' Union (AOU) Check-List Committee, which evaluates evidence about which birds are distinct species, and Mark Robbins, chair of the American Birding Association Checklist Committee, which documents where in North America each species can be found. America's endemics--birds found nowhere else on Earth but the USA--turn out to be "a bunch of birds most members of the general public have never heard of," says bird-watcher and Santa Monica College biologist Lyle Nichols, who once started a hot debate about U.S. endemics on rec.birds, an online newsgroup. We'll list them in a minute, but first:

 

THE RULES OF THE GAME

3) We exclude the Hawaiian endemics--honeycreepers plus many others--because Hawaii is so distinct from the mainland ecologically. Our all-American list is confined to the continental United States.

2) Only year-round U.S. residents are included. We exclude "breeding season endemics" like the Swainson's warbler, which winters south of the border.

3) Vagrants--U.S. residents that show up occasionally in Canada or Mexico--make the list if no established population exists in other nations.

OK, here's the total. We found 15 endemic birds in the 3.5 square million miles of the continental United States. To put that in context, the Hawaiian Islands, with a combined land mass of about 6,500 square miles, probably had 120 endemic birds before humans settled there. (Currently there are 35 Hawaiian endemics.) In bird-watching, arguing the details is half the fun.

If you know of other U.S. endemics, let us know. The list of all-American birds, though short, is intriguing. "Birds of the southeastern United States are disproportionately represented," notes Cornell University ornithologist Ken Rosenberg. "That makes sense, since southern longleaf pine forest is a habitat unique to the United States."

The list also hinges on how species are defined. Some birds make the list because of taxonomic "splits"--because new information has revealed that one species is really two or more.

Sadly, most U.S. endemics are declining in numbers--their little islands of habitat eroded by waves of agriculture, logging or development. But a few are increasing and even expanding their ranges.

Without further ado, meet the real all-Americans.

 

A SPLIT IN TIME

When baby boomers were still babies, the AOU recognized just one scrub jay. In 1998, this species was split in three--making two instant all-Americans. The Florida scrub-jay lives in a small patch of scrub-oak habitat in Florida. The island scrub-jay lives only on Santa Cruz Island, 15 miles off the California coast. The western scrub-jay doesn't make the list because populations extend into Mexico.

Bird guides from the Beatles era list sharp-tailed sparrow as a single species, wintering along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts and breeding up into Canada. In 1998, noting two populations that didn't breed, AOU split the species, creating the Nelson's sharp-tail (the Canadian breeders) and the all-American saltmarsh sharptailed sparrow.

More recently--in 2000--the AOU split sage grouse, noting two groups that differed in body size, plumage, vocalizations and courtship displays. The greater sage-grouse ranges (barely) into Canada. The Gunnison sage-grouse is the new all-American, with tiny populations on the sagebrush plains of Colorado and Utah.

Scientists are always gathering new information, so sometimes the AOU committee reverses its decisions more than once. Half a century back, black rosy-finch and brown-capped rosy finch--sparrow-sized alpine birds with delicate pink underfeathers--were considered distinct species. But the two are lumped as one, the "rosy finch," in my disco-era National Geographic guide. In 1998 the checklist committee split the two species again.

All-American Birds magazine layout - florida scrub jays

A PAIR of Florida scrub jays searches for ants, the feast of choice during summer. Scrub jays also have a taste for the eggs of other birds, and for acorns--often burying more than they consume, helping to regenerate oak forests. The threatened birds survive in small, isolated populations in the Sunshine State, where much of their habitat has been developed. Researchers see global warming as a potential future threat to the species, as rising sea levels could eventually inundate what is left of the jay's scrub-oak habitat.

 

DOUBLE ENDEMIC

Like the Florida scrub jay, the yellow-billed magpie is endemic both to the United States and to one state. In the magpie's case, it's the State of California. The McKay's bunting, another double endemic, winters only on the extreme western coast of Alaska (it breeds in summer on two American islands in the Bering Sea). Its close relative, the snow bunting, is common in Canada and the United States.

 

BIRDS OF CONCERN

The red-cockaded woodpecker has been protected under the Endangered Species Act for decades. The mature longleaf pine forests it prefers once carpeted the Southeast, but logging has removed much of the original forest.

Also almost completely localized to the southern piney-woods habitat--and declining throughout its range--is the Bachman's sparrow. This species actually expanded its range northward in the early 20th century, moving into open habitat on abandoned farms--but those populations dwindled as farms reverted back to dense forest.

A candidate for listing as federally endangered, the lesser prairie chicken has declined in numbers by about 97 percent since the 1800s--its required sagebrush-and-oak habitat taken over by farming. Only about 10,000 individuals remain.

The aptly named seaside sparrow is found only in coastal regions--specifically, saltmarshes from Massachusetts to south Texas (vagrants do show up in Nova Scotia but don't breed there). Of several distinctive subspecies, the Cape Sable seaside sparrow is endangered while the dusky seaside sparrow was declared extinct in 1980.

North America has seven different chickadee species; the Carolina chickadee is the smallest--and the only U.S. endemic. Almost identical in appearance to the black-capped chickadee, it lives in forests of the Southeast. The conservation status of this species is uncertain--declining in some areas, increasing in others. No one knows why.

 

ENDEMIC AND DOING FINE

In contrast to these threatened American endemics, the fish crow is increasing in numbers. While its look-alike relative, the American crow, ranges throughout the United States and into Canada during the breeding season, fish crows live only in the eastern United States. Not only is the population growing, its range is expanding, both inland and northward. "The fish crow could get to Canada," says Robbins. "And it could happen this year."

Resembling a skinny crow--but more closely related to blackbirds--is the boat- tailed grackle. The AOU lumped it with the great-tailed grackle (which ranges into Mexico) way back in 1910. In 1983 the two species were split again. The boat-tail lives exclusively along the eastern seaboard plus Florida and the Gulf Coast. "Of the coastal endemics, this is the species of least conservation concern," says Remsen. "Saltmarsh and seaside sparrows need intact saltmarsh, but boat-tails are happy feeding on a lawn." The boat-tail may not be an all-American much longer, though, says Robbins: "I wouldn't be surprised if it edges down into eastern Mexico."

 

MISSED THE LIST

If our rules included every state in the nation, the endemic birds of Hawaii would make our list much larger. Some birders say the California condor should also make the list. With a population of just 215 birds, it lives only in California and Arizona. As little as 150 years ago though, condors ranged to Mexico and Canada. "I'd put the condor on the list," says Remsen. "No one alive today can remember seeing condors in Mexico."

The story is similar for the greater prairie-chicken. It's currently found only in the United States, but until about a decade ago it also bred in Canada.

Check the range map in the new Sibley Guide to Birds, and you'd swear the brown-headed nuthatch--the pert little bird with a "rubber-ducky call"--should make the list. According to the map this species, like the red-cockaded woodpecker and Bachman's sparrow, lives in southeastern pine forests (and is declining). What the map doesn't show is that this bird also occurs outside the continental United States--on Grand Bahama Island, 105 miles off the coast of Miami. (That population--tiny and threatened--is barely hanging on.)

Ultimately, of course, the idea of American endemics is an artificial construct, since America's boundaries are political, while geographic features and ecosystems cut across borders. BirdLife International's California Endemic Birds Area (EBA), for example, is a biotic region that extends into Mexico. "There are probably a dozen species endemic to the California EBA, including oak titmouse and island scrub jay," says Dan Cooper, National Audubon Society's director of bird conservation in California.

The flip side of the story is that American endemics do depend exclusively on U.S. laws to protect them. "I think for conservation purposes the concept of endemism is important," says Remsen, "because the fate of these birds is entirely in our hands."

Frequent contributor Cynthia Berger is the author of Wild Guide: Dragonflies published by Stackpole Books. She wrote about fireflies in the April/May issue.

 

Closer Look

Endemic Explained

It sounds like a flu outbreak, but to a bird-watcher, the word endemic means "desirable." Endemic birds are often rare and concentrated in a small area. BirdLife International, a global alliance of conservation organizations, defines endemic as typically being restricted to less than 50,000 square kilometers (19,305 miles). About one-quarter of the world's bird species meet this definition. Most of the pockets where endemics are found are on islands or mountain ranges. Why? Because after being geographically isolated from other members of their species, they evolved independently. Perhaps their small gene pool was slightly different from that of the larger population. Or, some individuals may have a trait that confers some advantage to that particular place. In time, distinctive traits pass to offspring and a new species arises--or perhaps several new species, as on the Hawaiian Islands, where a single finchlike species gave rise to 60 to 70 colorful Hawaiian honeycreepers.--Cynthia Berger

 

California Condor

Left Off Our List

Critically endangered, the California condor lives only in California and Arizona. But if current reintroduction efforts are successful, the endangered birds will be reestablished in parts of their historic habitat in Mexico, where they lived for some 400,000 years--until uncontrolled hunting, pesticides, lead and power lines decimated the population.

In Mexico, condors disappeared from the landscape by 1937. By the early 1980s, only 22 of the birds remained in the United States.

In a last-ditch effort, biologists began rounding up the birds in the late 1980s for captive breeding. Reintroduction to the wild on the U.S. side began in 1992. But it took another ten years before the species again touched down south of the border.

At this writing, five trailblazers were being held in temporary pens in Mexico while biologists updated the birds' transmitters. "They'll be re-released soon," says Denise Stockton at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Hopper Mountain National Wildlife Refuge in California. Three more were expected to join their ranks in June.

"It's great to have them back," she says. "But it'll be even greater when they're back in solid numbers throughout their original range.--Heidi Ridgley

 

Florida Scrub Jay Trailblazers

Mention the names Bruce and Cathy Brown to any NWF staffer who knows them and you'll hear only praise for their dedication, enthusiasm and gardening knowledge. Four years ago, the Florida residents answered a Federation call for volunteers, and they've been producing dramatic results ever since.

"They're among our greatest champions," says education coordinator Jake Scott, "and they've trained quite a small army of stewards." To date, nearly six dozen people have participated in NWF Habitat Stewards™ workshops offered by the couple at their native-plant nursery in Clermont, B.B. Brown's Gardens. Those individuals now educate and assist other community members in creating and restoring wildlife habitat.

"We're so proud of the work they've done," says Bruce, listing neighborhood tree plantings and habitat certifications among the stewards' accomplishments.

But the Browns also deserve recognition--not only for empowering others to make a difference but for tackling an ambitious conservation project of their own: the creation of the Florida Scrub Jay Trail, a 5-acre native habitat on their property, which opened to the public in May.

Of the nearly 500 bird species found in Florida, the trail's namesake is the Sunshine State's only endemic bird--and among the nation's federally listed threatened species. "Ninety percent of the scrub jay's original population is already gone," says Cathy. "This puts the species in grave danger of extinction in our lifetime."

While the birds on their property--currently numbering three--had adapted to nesting in citrus trees planted by the former owner, the Browns wanted to improve the species' quality of life by restoring the land back to preferred scrub and sandhill conditions. The couple sought financial assistance from NWF's Species Recovery Fund in 2003. Out of hundreds of applications, their proposal was one of 11 that received grant monies.

"Bruce and Cathy's project was chosen because of its excellent potential to provide direct, immediate benefit to the Florida scrub jay, while raising public awareness of and involvement in the conservation of this species," says fund manager Ron Ohrel.

So far, 200 volunteers, dubbed the Florida Scrub Jay Trailblazers, have helped with the project, including 70 local high school students who earned service-learning credit for their efforts. The pupils spent the better part of the academic year researching scrub jay habitat, helping clear the trail of invasives and planting native species such as beargrass, fringetree and Florida bonamia. They even built a large wooden kiosk that stands at the trailhead, which they filled with informative posters.

Invigorated by the community support, the Browns say they would dedicate 24 hours a day to scrub jay conservation if they could. "This is just the beginning," says Bruce. "There is much more work to do."

"Our intention," adds Cathy, "is to acquire more land to expand this preservation project for many years to come."--Kelly L. Senser

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