14 Birdy Reasons to Celebrate the Wilderness Act

In honor of the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, here are several birds that have benefited from the legislation, and some that still need its help. 

Happy birthday to the Wilderness Act, which turns 50 years old today. Signed into effect on Sept. 3, 1964 by President Lyndon B. Johnson (after eight years of work and more than 60 drafts), the Act created a system for protecting the natural areas we love. It was also the first piece of legislation to present a legal definition for wilderness—as “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” 

When it was signed, the Act designated about 9 million acres of wilderness area; today, it protects nearly 110 million acres in 44 states and Puerto Rico. While the Wilderness Act protects habitat for everything from moose to mountain lions, it’s an especial boon to the birds. Many designated wilderness sites overlap with globally recognized Important Bird Areas (IBA), making sure birds have safe, protected places to breed, nest, and stop over during their migrations.  

Here are a few birds who live in these overlapped areas and are doing great thanks to the Wilderness Act:  

1. Bald Eagle

Act-Protected IBAs:  Monomoy Wilderness, Massachusetts; Gaylord Nelson Wilderness Area, Wisconsin  

Preferred Habitat: Bald Eagles prefer to hang out close to large bodies of water, like rivers, marshes, and lakes.

A Little Bit of History:  The Bald Eagle had a close call when pesticides and other environmental contaminants caused widespread population declines throughout the 20th century. The eagle spent decades on the endangered species list before the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service finally proposed delisting in 1999 after a series of rigorous recovery programs. Today, the eagle enjoys a much-recovered population and the benefit of numerous protected wilderness areas throughout the United States.  

Fun Fact:  Bald Eagles aren’t born bald—their iconic white feathers typically don’t finish growing in until the eagles are about 5 years old.  

 

2. Wood Stork

Act-Protected IBAs: Everglades National Park, Florida  

Preferred Habitat: A wading bird, the Wood Stork sticks around marshes and swamps.  

A Little Bit of History:  The Wood Stork has had a bumpy ride the past few decades. Throughout the 20th century, Wood Storks in the southeastern United States—particularly in Florida—experienced serious population declines, due to commercial development and habitat destruction. Fortunately, in June the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service concluded that the stork had recovered enough to move from the endangered species list to the threatened list, following three decades of recovery programs. 

Fun Fact: The Wood Stork is North America’s only native stork.  

 

 3. Brown Pelican  

Act-Protected IBAs:  Everglades National Park, Florida; Cape Romain Wilderness, South Carolina

Preferred Habitat: Brown Pelicans like to live on southern and western coastlines, preferably on isolated islands without any land predators. 

A Little Bit of History: Brown Pelicans almost completely disappeared from North America between 1950s and early 1970s, and they were quickly but on the endangered species list. Most of the population was killed outright by the pesticide endrin, and their nests were at risk from DDT contamination. Thanks to bans on certain pesticides and areas protected by the Wilderness Act, the Brown Pelicans made a comeback and were delisted in 1985. Today, they are regulars to all the beaches, and their numbers continue to increase.

Fun Fact: Pelicans incubate their eggs with the skin of their feet, essentially standing on the eggs to keep them warm. When the pesticide DDT caused pelicans to lay thinner eggs, they cracked under the weight of incubating parents.

  4. Leach’s Storm-petrel 

Act-Protected IBAs:  Farallon Islands, California; Oregon Island Wilderness, Oregon

Preferred Habitat: Leach’s Storm Petrel like the open ocean, spruce-covered islands, and rocky coasts.

A Little Bit of History:  Leach’s Storm-Petrels are fortunate little shorebirds. Their populations have never been threatened and they have nests all over the coastal regions in the northern Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. However, they do benefit from the Wilderness Act since it protects areas with their preferred habitats.

Fun Fact: Storm-petrels have a superior of smell. They use it to find food at sea and are often the first birds to arrive at an odor source.

 

 5. Osprey 

Act-Protected IBAs:  Everglades National Park, Florida 

Preferred Habitat: Wherever there’s water, Osprey are probably near. Look out for their carefully constructed stick nests. 

A Little Bit of History:  Osprey populations crashed in the 1950s when pesticides, like DDT, infiltrated their diet and thinned their eggshells. Once the pesticides were banned and they had protected areas to nest in, they made a 2.5 percent population increase annually between 1966-2010. Today, they fly all over the United States and hang out at all of the local fishing spots. 

Fun Fact: Ospreys have a reversible outer toe that allows them to grasp with two toes in front and two behind. The barbed pads on the soles of the birds' feet help them grip slippery fish.

 

 6. Double-crested Cormorant 

Act-Protected IBAs:  Farallon Islands, California; Gaylord Nelson Wilderness Area, Wisconsin 

Preferred Habitat: Double-crested Cormorants--the most widespread cormorant in North America—frequent freshwater areas. They build colonies of stick nests built high in trees on the coast and on large inland lakes. 

A Little Bit of History:  In the 1800s and early 1900s, Double-crested Cormorants were the frequent subject of hunting, but hunting came to be the least of their problems. In the 1950s the Double-crested Cormorant took a hit from DDT, which made their eggs’ shells too thin. Since the 1970s, their population has rebounded and steadily grown, thanks to protected breeding areas and the banning of DDT.  

Fun Fact: Cormorants often stand in the sun with their wings spread out to dry. They have less preen oil than other birds, so their feathers can get soaked rather than shedding water like a duck’s. 

 

The following birds may be in some trouble, and need the Wilderness Act now more than ever:  

  7. Tufted Puffin

Act-Protected IBAs: Oregon Island Wilderness, Oregon  

Preferred Habitat: Tufted Puffins are seabirds, found along the coast of the Pacific Northwest. They make their homes on rocky, offshore islands and spend much of their time foraging for food at sea.  

A Little Bit of History:  The Tufted Puffin has had its share of trouble in the past century. Foxes, rats, and other scavengers threaten the island-dwelling birds, and oil spills have killed thousands over the past few decades. In February, the National Resources Defense Council petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list the puffin as an endangered species, a request that is still being considered.  

Fun Fact: After fledging, juvenile puffins migrate south to the Central Pacific, and often do not return to their breeding grounds for several years. Nobody knows exactly what they do during these free juvenile years.  

  8. Steller’s Eider  

Act-Protected IBAs:  Izembek Wilderness, Alaska

Preferred Habitat: Steller’s Eider like the (relatively) balmy summer lakes of the northern tundra. 

A Little Bit of History: The populations are declining all over North America. The Steller’s Eider is considered threatened in the United States. The Wilderness Act has helped protect some of its preferred habitat and, if it continues to hold strong, will hopefully allow these birds to bounce back. 

Fun Fact: Flocks dive synchronously and then surface in unison.

 

 9. Emperor Goose 

Act-Protected IBAs:  Izembek Wilderness, Alaska

Preferred Habitat: Emperor Geese thrive on seacoasts, mudflats, and coastal tundra in Alaska. 

A Little Bit of History:  Emperor Geese experienced a significant decline in numbers from 139,000 in 1964 to 42,000 in 1986. Numbers have recovered somewhat since then, but are still not close to their original population numbers. The factors contributing to this decline are not well-known, but subsistence hunting by Native Americans may be a key factor and coastal oil pollution may contribute to mortality in wintering birds. The bird is easy to hunt, as it flies low to the ground, responds to people walking in its habitat by circling nearby, and readily comes to decoys. Having protected areas has contributed to their continued survival and the Wilderness Act continuation is critical to the survival of this species. 

Fun Fact: This species is much less gregarious than most geese, usually occurring in family groups.

  10. Marbled Murrelet  

Act-Protected IBAs: Rock Creek Wilderness, Oregon; Cummins Creek Wilderness, Oregon  

Preferred Habitat: Marbled Murrelets spend their time at sea or near the coast. They breed in coastal coniferous forests, nesting on large horizontal branches high up in trees. 

A Little Bit of History: These shorebirds greatest threats are logging and development. Significant portions of nesting areas have already been lost; oil spills and entanglement in gill-nets are also major risks. Currently listed as "endangered" by the state of California, the Wilderness Act could be the only thing standing between the Marbled Murrelet and extinction. 

Fun Fact: Though the Marbled Murrelet was first described in 1789, nobody formally documented a nest until 1974.

 

 11. Sooty Shearwater 

Act-Protected IBAs: Farallon Islands, California 

Preferred Habitat: Sooty Shearwaters make their home all along the Pacific coastlines in California. 

A Little Bit of History:  The number of migrating Sooty Shearwaters in California Current is estimated to have fallen by 90 percent from 1976 to 1996, due to increasing ocean temperature. Since human-induced climate change will continue to up ocean temps, the bird’s future is uncertain.

Fun Fact: Sooty Shearwaters can dive up to 223 feet in search of food, although they more commonly hunt food on the surface. They often follow whales to catch fish displaced from their schools.

 

 12. Piping Plover

Act-Protected IBAs:  Monomoy Wilderness, Massachusetts; Cape Romain Wilderness, South Carolina  

Preferred Habitat: The Piping Plover is a shorebird and makes its home right on the beach.  

A Little Bit of History:  There may be fewer than 8,000 Piping Plovers left in the world, making its protection imperative. Development has been a big problem for the plovers, whose habitat is disturbed and even destroyed by human activities on the beach. Populations along the Atlantic Coast of North America are listed as threatened by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  

Fun Fact: While nesting, plover parents will sometimes defend their young from predators by faking a broken wing, which lures hungry foxes and raccoons away from the nest.  

 

 13. Roseate Spoonbill  

Act-Protected IBAs:  Everglades National Park, Florida  

Preferred Habitat: These birds prefer marsh and wetland habitat, where they can wade around searching for small fish and crustaceans to gobble up.  

A Little Bit of History: Globally, the Roseate Spoonbill is a great success story—it fought its way back from near extinction in the late 19th century, thanks to unchecked hunting, and now enjoys significantly increased populations (although numbers still aren’t back to their historic highs). Unfortunately, populations are still suffering in Florida and Louisiana, mostly because of habitat loss.  

Fun Fact: The Roseate Spoonbill gets its pink coloring from pigments in the crustaceans it snacks on.  

  14. Whimbrel

Act-Protected IBAs:  Cape Romain Wilderness, South Carolina  

Preferred Habitat: During the breeding season, Whimbrels take advantage of a wide range of habitats including scrub land and tundra. During migration, they prefer marshes and grasslands.  

A Little Bit of History:  Whimbrels face a variety of challenges, from habitat loss to environmental contaminants.  Because of their widespread population declines around the country, Whimbrels are in great need of protected areas where they can make their homes without being disturbed.  

Fun Fact: The Whimbrel’s genus name—Numenius—means “of the new moon,” and describes the Whimbrel’s slender, crescent moon-shaped bill.  

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