14 of North America's Most Endangered Birds

Gunnison Sage-Grouse

credit: Cornell Lab of Ornithology on YouTube

Have you ever heard of the Gunnison sage-grouse? Probably not. And yet it is one of the most endangered bird species in North America. "The bird was only discovered 13 years ago, and yet it’s already nearly a goner. Today, fewer than 5,000 of these birds remain in the wild, and they are rapidly dwindling," reports Discovery News. The ground-dwelling bird, down to living in only seven geographically isolated populations in eastern Utah and Colorado, is about the size of a chicken. During mating season, the males put on quite a display by fanning their spiky tail feathers and making a loud popping noise with the air sacs on their chests as they try to impress the females. "The Gunnison sage grouse is an emblematic species for a uniquely American ecosystem, every bit as worthy of investment in its preservation as our finest man-made treasures. Future generations will marvel at the Gunnison sage grouse, as I did on that cool spring morning several years ago. But only if we save it today," writes John W. Fitzpatrick, director of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, in the New York Times. This sage-grouse is a beautiful bird, even if few of us may ever even see one in the wild. But there are more species that line up next to it at the cliff edge of extinction. The list of endangered bird species is disturbingly long. Among some of the most endangered are these amazing, unique and beautiful birds listed here. Find out some of the many species that need our attention and conservation efforts most byclicking through this slideshow.

Florida Grasshopper Sparrow

credit: Dan Irizarry

"Despite extensive habitat restoration, they're on a toboggan run to oblivion. And unless managers can figure out and reverse what's wrong in the next year or two, this bird will almost surely be gone--the first known bird extinction in the continental United States since the loss, in 1987, of the dusky seaside sparrow, once native to the marshes of Florida's Merritt Island and St. John River Valley," writes Ted Williams in Audubon Magazine, in an article from the March-April 2013 issue. This fascinating and detailed article tells you everything you may want to know about this interesting bird, and, perhaps more importantly, delves into what it takes to save such a species from extinction and why it is important. The sparrow species had around 2,000 individuals left in 2008, and now there are somewhere around 200 and declining. Conservationists are working hard with a captive breeding program begun just this spring, but thinking about the prospects for the species is nerve-racking at best. It will take a lot of effort and no small amount of luck to bring this specie back from so near the brink of extinction. If you find yourself wondering why we do or should worry over a bird species as seemingly plain as a small sparrow, a bird whose niche may be filled by other species of sparrows easily enough, consider what Williams has to say about it: "Maybe the only explanation for people who have to ask why the Florida grasshopper sparrow matters is this: It matters not because it is a source of enrichment for human lives (although it is), not because it is a source of medicine or agent of pest control (it is probably neither), not because it is an "indicator species" that tells us we haven't completely wrecked our habitat, not because it is anything, only because it is." Species matter because they exist. And when their loss is caused by our hands, the disappearance is all the more grave. Luckily, some endangered bird species have slightly more sunny outlooks, like the next bird in our slideshow. Click through for its story.

California Condor

credit: a2gk3

Most anyone who hasn't been living under a rock the last couple decades has heard of the conservation efforts behind the California condor. This majestic species is the largest terrestrial bird in North America, with a wingspan of about 9 feet! Due to habitat destruction, poaching and poisoning from lead and DDT, the population of condors plummeted during the 20th century until only 22 were left in the entire world. A massive conservation effort that included capturing all remaining condors and starting a captive breeding program has helped to bring their numbers back up to a little over 400, with about 234 birds living in the wild. However, this is still far from out of danger. Because these birds eat carrion, lead poisoning from bullets left in carcasses is still a problem and finding solutions is a controversial issue among hunters and conservationists. Power lines are also a problem, though since 1994, captive bred condors have been trained to avoid power lines -- and people. For now, you can see condors soaring from the Grand Canyon to the California coast, and in two areas set aside as condor sanctuaries -- the Sisquoc Condor Sanctuary in the San Rafael Wilderness and the Sespe Condor Sanctuary in the Los Padres National Forest.


credit: Jaymi Heimbuch

This gorgeous goose species is the Nene, and it is the official state bird of Hawai'i. Found on the Hawaiian islands of Maui, Molokaʻi, Hawai'i and Kaua'i, the nene is the world's rarest goose. Human encroachment caused a population plummet to the point that the species was declared endangered in 1967 with only about 30 birds left. Conservation efforts including captive breeding stabilized the population and began to rebuild the species' numbers. Today there are more than 800 living in the wild and more than 1,000 in zoos and collections around the world. Sadly, though, humans are still the major threat for these beautiful birds -- including, perhaps surprisingly, the significant threat of errant golf balls since the geese like to nest on the lawns of golf courses.

Whooping Crane

credit: Claire Timm

The Whooping Crane is one of only two crane species in North America (the other being the Sandhill Crane), and its existence is precarious at best. Unregulated hunting and habitat encroachment pushed the species to the brink of extinction, with only 15-20 cranes left by 1941. Massive conservation efforts have helped the species, including both captive breeding as well as teaching the captive-bred individuals to migrate north to breeding grounds using an ultralight aircraft. The effort that goes in to bringing numbers back up and teaching the birds to migrate and raise chicks in the wild is truly amazing. Whooping Cranes now number only about 380 in the wild. Hunting is still a significant problem for the species, though conservationists are working for harsher sentences for culprits guilty of killing a member of this endangered species. "South Dakotan Jeff Blachford, 26, has been handed a stiff sentence that includes $85,000 in restitution and two years of probation for violating the Federal Endangered Species Act after shooting and killing an endangered whooping crane...He will also be required to surrender his firearms, as well as be prohibited from hunting, fishing or trapping within the U.S. for the next two years," reported MNN in February.

Kirtland’s Warbler

credit: USFWS Headquarters

The Kirtland's warbler is particular about where it lives. It can be found in the jack pine forests of the northern lower peninsula of Michigan, but it is those jack pines and the fires that keep the jack pine forests healthy that are at the heart of this bird's endangered status and a clever conservation strategy to help it survive. From U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services: "The Kirtland’s warbler is often referred to as the “bird of fire” because of its strict reliance on the fire-dependent jack pine forest for nesting. Much like the legendary Phoenix that rises from the ashes to live again, so do Kirtland’s warblers. However, what was once a fire-dominated ecosystem has changed as the need to protect homes, businesses, timber, and other assets now embedded in the jack pine landscape has required fire suppression. The story of the Kirtland’s warbler’s recovery is about working within these confines to protect these valuable resources while maintaining the unique jack pine ecosystem." With the conservation efforts working, the warbler might soon be able to be delisted as endangered, though the population estimate puts the species at only around 3,500 individuals.

Ashy Storm Petrel

credit: USFWS/ Pacific Southwest Region

The Ashy storm petrel is an interesting seabird species that nests primarily off the coast of California on small islands. They are nocturnal, feeding on squid, fish and krill that congregate at the ocean's surface at night. There are an estimated 10,000 birds left in the world, with the population declining due to issues such as introduced predators including rats and cats, pollution, and illumination from fishing boats. Without disturbance, these birds can live to be over 30 years old. However, the Ashy storm petrel faces even more challenges in the future, including changes in prey availability and nesting sites as global warming continues to affect the ocean.

Piping Plover

credit: USFWS Northeast Region

This adorable little shorebird is the Piping plover. Found on the east coast and in the mid-west, this species has experienced a dramatic decline during the 19th and early 20th centuries after being hunted for its feathers which were used in women's hats. Today, the endangered species has only around 6,510 individuals, but those remaining are here thanks to conservation efforts that began decades ago and population numbers have been increasing since 1991. Critical nesting habitats are now protected in many states where the birds breed and feed, with some beaches entirely off-limits during critical times in the nesting season.

Florida Scrub Jay

credit: Canon-Man

You might be thinking that there's no way a scrub jay could be on the endangered species list. Yet here is the Florida scrub jay, listed as a species threatened by extinction with fewer than 6,000 individuals left. This bird has been a distinct species in Florida for at least 2 million years, and is the only species of bird endemic to the state. Not only does the species face dwindling scrub habitat, but they also are victims of human kindness. This from wikipedia: "An inquisitive and intelligent species, the most striking attribute of the Florida Scrub Jay's behavior is its remarkable tameness. As such, scrub jays willingly take food from human hands. Unfortunately, this tameness is dangerous to the well-being of the species. Florida Scrub Jays that are fed by humans will reproduce earlier in the year than those that are not. However, fledgling scrub jays feed primarily on caterpillars present in the late spring and summer; if they hatch too early in the year when the caterpillars are not available, this can lead to their malnutrition or starvation. Another potential danger of feeding Florida Scrub Jays occurs when people feed them near a road, as one major cause of death for scrub jays in urban areas is collision with vehicles." Yet another reminder why feeding wildlife is a BIG no-no, even if you think you're being nice.

Golden-cheeked Warbler

credit: tombenson76

The vividly colored Golden-cheeked Warbler is a resident of central Texas, and is sometimes called the gold finch of Texas. It is the only bird species with a breeding range limited to Texas and is found no where else in the world -- and it is also endangered primarily due to the deforestation of the juniper and oak woodlands where they live and nest. According to Fish and Wildlife Services: "The clearing of old juniper woodlands for livestock grazing and urban expansion has decreased the area available for nesting. When large tracts of woods are broken up with pastures, roads and development, a population increase among nest predators such as the blue jays and the brown-headed cowbird occurs. The quantity of woodlands on the small fragmented tracts often means adults cannot find enough food to feed the young, or the young have no areas on which to disperse. About 27,000 warbler are estimated to survive today, a decline of about 25% in 28 years."

Marbled Murrelet

credit: USFWS Pacific

Though the Marbled murrelet feeds out at sea on sardines and anchovies, it nests in old growth redwood forests. That dependency on old redwoods with high, wide branches is part of the story of its decline, as loggers entered its habitat in the 19th century. Marbled murrelet is still on the decline, even though logging in old growth areas has ceased. The current threats include egg predation by an increased population of crows and jays, which have taken advantage of food sources provided by roads and campgrounds. In a fascinating recent article, Bay Nature reports, "Seeing a murrelet nest is almost impossible, and spotting adults out of the nest isn’t much easier. The males and females share nesting and chick-rearing, and each dawn and dusk, one of them leaves to hunt at sea, while the other stays to incubate their single egg. To see the changing of the guard, you must rise before dawn and sit in the cold for hours, only to glimpse a blurry spot streak by at breakneck speed–murrelets often fly at 50 miles an hour and have been clocked at 103." Wikipedia notes: "The Marbled Murrelet has declined in number since humans began logging its nest trees in the latter half of the 19th century. The decline of the Marbled Murrelet and its association with old-growth forests, at least in the southern part of its range, have made it a flagship species in the forest preservation movement." A related murrelet, the Kittlitz's murrelet, is also facing precipitous decline and is considered by many to be critically endangered though it has not been listed as such yet.

California Least Tern

credit: Alan Vernon

This subspecies of Least Tern lives on the coasts of California, and can be spotted in Southern California and up into the San Francisco Bay Area. When listed as endangered in 1974, there were only 582 breeding pairs left. That number has gradually increased with conservation efforts. Domestic cats, burrowing owls and American kestrels are all predators of California Least Tern during the breeding season from April to September. Conservation efforts have even extended to the San Diego airport, where surprisingly California Least Terns have the most productive nesting colony in the San Diego Bay. There is even a nest counter on the airport's website.

Nihoa Millerbird

credit: USFWS Pacific

The Nihoa Millerbird is a critically endangered bird and no wonder -- it is found only on the tiny, 156-acre island of Nihoa of Hawai'i. Researchers don't know a whole lot about it, for fear of disrupting the few birds that remain. However, in an effort to protect the species from collapse, some individuals have been relocated to Laysan Island where a closely related subspecies once lived but went extinct sometime between 1916 and 1923. Over the last 30 years, the population has fluctuated between 300-700 individuals. Hopefully the translocation of some individuals to Laysan Island can provide a buffer against extinction. (The bird pictured here is one of those individuals released on Laysan.)

Red-cockaded Woodpecker

credit: USFWS/Southeast

The beautiful Red-cockaded Woodpecker could once be found all over the east and southeast living in old growth pine forests. However, as logging wiped out much of its habitat, the population of this species plummeted. US Fish and Wildlife Services notes, "Pine savannahs and open woodlands once dominated the southeastern United States and may have totaled more than 200 million acres at the time of European colonization. Longleaf pine communities may have covered 60 to 92 million of those acres. Today, fewer than 3 million acres remain." Because this is the only woodpecker species to excavate nest sites in living trees, having the right habitat is greatly important. Conservation efforts to help raise this species' numbers include drilling nesting cavities into trees and inserting man-made nests. Because breeding woodpeckers will look for existing nest holes and other suitable spots for raising chicks in order to save energy, creating artificial nesting sites helps the woodpeckers in successful breeding. According to Wikipedia: "Historically, this woodpecker's range extended in the southeastern United States from Florida to New Jersey and Maryland, as far west as eastern Texas and Oklahoma, and inland to Missouri, Kentucky, and Tennessee. Today it is estimated that there are about 5,000 groups of red-cockaded woodpeckers, or 12,500 birds, from Florida to Virginia and west to southeast Oklahoma and eastern Texas, representing about 1% of the woodpecker's original population. They have become extinct-(extirpated), in New Jersey, Maryland, and Missouri."