Water: A Critical Resource for Birds and People Everywhere

Follow the Lesser Yellowlegs to discover important water sources and learn about all the ways they sustain life across the hemisphere.
A streaky white and brown shorebird with a long beak and long yellow legs wades in shallow water.
Lesser Yellowlegs. Photo: John Troth/Audubon Photography Awards

This year’s World Migratory Bird Day celebrates one of the most fundamental needs shared by birds and people: Water.

Keep reading to see the many surprising ways in which the places that birds like the Lesser Yellowlegs need during winter, migration, and summer are also tied to things that people need, like clean water or places to fish. Places that hold or manage water also play vital roles in controlling flooding and storing carbon pollution, two things that will be increasingly important as climate change affects the planet and everything living on it.

Meet the Lesser Yellowlegs

This long-legged wading bird spends its winters in Central and South America foraging for food in wetlands and along coastlines. During migration, it appears throughout Central and North America. So long as there is a bit of water and some mud and grasses, the Lesser Yellowlegs can find enough food to make the long flight to North America’s Boreal Forest and Arctic, where it breeds in summer. Come fall, it reverses that migration and heads back south.  

Birds tell us that—as we deal with a changing climate—protecting rivers, lakes, and streams is becoming even more important for people, birds, and other wildlife. The water supply in the West, restoration needs at the Everglades, water quality on the Mississippi and Delaware Rivers, the wetlands of the Great Lakes, the Boreal Forest’s marshes, lakes, and free-flowing rivers, and the waterways throughout the Americas require our attention. 

“This World Migratory Bird Day is a reminder of just how important water is for birds, and all of us,” said Julie Hill-Gabriel, Audubon’s VP for Water Conservation. “No matter the continent, no matter the geography, water sustains us all—and it’s up to us to ensure that we preserve our rivers, lakes, and wetlands for future generations.” 

Water Across the Hemisphere 

Place: Seal River Watershed in northern Manitoba, Canada 

Why it’s important: This watershed is a very special portion of the Boreal Forest. The Seal River has no dams on its length, which allows harbor seals to follow fish up the river, traveling far inland and giving the river its name. The entire watershed is rich in biodiversity supporting iconic species like polar bears, wolverines, gray wolves, and barren-ground caribou. It is also a critically important breeding and migratory stop-over location for millions of birds representing hundreds of species including the Lesser Yellowlegs. 

How much carbon does it store: The Seal River Watershed stores approximately 1.7 billion tonnes of carbon (6.2 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide [CO2]). 

Who depends on the Seal River Watershed: The Sayisi Dene First Nation, located within the 12-million-acre (50,000-square-kilometer) watershed, has a long history that is inextricably tied to the land, waters, and wildlife of the region. They are leading efforts—along with their Cree and Dene neighbors—to protect the entirety of this vitally important watershed. Together, this group is known as the Seal River Watershed Alliance. 

“As Indigenous people, we understand how important the watershed is to our livelihoods and futures,” says Seal River Watershed Alliance director Stephanie Thorassie, a member of the Sayisi Dene First Nation. “We also understand how important it is to the world because of the animal species at risk that migrate to the watershed.” 

Conservation challenge: There are no permanent roads, mines, or industrial development in the area of the watershed, and the Seal River Watershed Alliance wants to keep it that way by working with the governments of Manitoba and Canada to designate it as an Indigenous Protected and Conserved Area (IPCA). Protecting these wetlands helps mitigate the impatcs of climate change, sustains clean water, and conserves one of the largest intact watersheds on the planet for species like the Lesser Yellowlegs and many others. 

Click here to see an animated map from the Bird Migration Explorer showing where water quality issues affect the Lesser Yellowlegs.

Place: Great Salt Lake 

Why it’s important: Great Salt Lake is the largest saline lake in the Western Hemisphere and provides key breeding, nesting and stopover habitat for some 10 million migratory waterbirds in the American West. The lake contributes nearly $2 billion annually to Utah’s economy (adjusted for inflation), as well as jobs, wetlands, and contributions to the state’s snowpack. Audubon’s Western Water and Saline Lakes teams are working to protect the lake for the benefit of Utah, its people and its birds. 

How much carbon does it store: Research is still ongoing, but opportunities at wetlands around saline lakes and saline lakes themselves present an opportunity for sequestering greenhouse gas emissions. 

Who depends on Great Salt Lake: Communities around the lake including residents of Salt Lake City and other cities along the Wasatch Front, Native American Tribes, the recreation and skiing communities, mining interests, the brine shrimp industry, and more. 

Conservation challenge: In 2022, Great Salt Lake dropped to its lowest water levels in recorded history, threatening the health of nearby communities, the future of key Utah industries, ecological balance, watershed resiliency, quality of life, and the survival of millions of migratory shorebirds and other wildlife. Increased water demand from a growing Utah population, in combination with decreasing river flows—a symptom of drought and changing climate—has degraded ecosystems in and around Great Salt Lake, a critical stopover point for migrating birds in an arid landscape. Additionally, there are potential economic, cultural, and public health risks if Great Salt Lake continues declining over time.  

Click here to see an animated map from the Bird Migration Explorer showing how drought affects the Lesser Yellowlegs as it migrates every year. 

Place: The Cauca Valley, Colombia 

Why It’s Important: The Valle del Cauca (or Cauca Valley) hosts many important water habitats including marshes, oxbow lakes, and lagoons. These dynamic wetlands are home to more than 403 species of birds, including the Lesser Yellowlegs, and 77 other species of migratory birds. In 2022, the Audubon Americas team, along with partners Selva and ICESI University, started a project to place radio tags on Lesser Yellowlegs in the Cauca Valley to trace their migrations from their winter home in Colombia to breeding grounds in Alaska and Canada. This is the kind of vital information that will bring on-the-ground conservation solutions to help Lesser Yellowlegs and other wetland birds.     

How much carbon does it store: Like all wetlands, the Cauca Valley stores a massive amount of carbon.  
Who depends on the Cauca Valley Wetlands: Many communities around the Cauca River have adapted their way of life to living among the wetlands, which define their culture, food, provision, and relationship with water. When wetlands disappear, ways of life are lost as well. 

Conservation Challenge: In recent decades, the valley of the Cauca River has lost much of its wetlands due to obstruction or desiccation mainly due to agriculture and livestock production. Conserving the wetlands that still exist in the region is vital for Lesser Yellowlegs and biodiversity: 80% of the area that existed in 1970 (33,715 acres) has been lost. Read more about the bird life of Valle del Cauca 

Click here to see an animated map from the Bird Migration Explorer showing where livestock production affects the wetlands that Lesser Yellowlegs need to survive.