February 2, 2019
By Nathaniel Miller, Director of Conservation for the Great Lakes
On this World Wetlands Day, I’d like to also celebrate marsh birds and the ways that they help us understand and remedy some of the most daunting challenges facing our water systems today, especially in the Great Lakes region. Healthy and abundant wetlands are essential to the ability of humans to thrive, and birds tell us what we need to do.
Wetlands trap pollutants, filtering them out of our water. They also store a tremendous amount of water to help prevent flooding—a one-acre wetland only a foot deep can store up to 400,000 gallons! With the dramatic increase in storms and flooding as well as rapid fluctuations of lake water levels, we need this important service to help ensure that our communities are resilient to the uncertain impacts of a changing climate.
Although we are no longer seeing a “net loss” of wetlands, thanks to the landmark Clean Water Act of 1972, we are still seeing their rapid degradation, especially of the deeper water marshes and that’s bad news for us and birds. Thick carpets of invasive plants such as common reed and narrow-leaved cattail have overrun otherwise structurally diverse and dynamic marshes, while others have been converted to ponds. Poorly planned roads, railroad tracks, and subdivisions, have disrupted the ability of the water to naturally ebb and flow, leaving behind pools of stagnant, dirty water that is incapable of sustaining life. Half a century of neglect and degradation has taken a toll on the ability of nature to help us but has also led to a sharp decline in many bird species.
Marsh birds such as Black Tern, Common Gallinule, King Rail, Least Bittern, and Pied-billed Grebe are responding to the decline of our wetlands. Thanks to monitoring by Audubon and partners, we know that regional populations of some of these species have decreased by as much as 80% in just a few short decades. Iconic and beloved birds like Black Tern and King Rail are on the verge of complete collapse. These marsh bird species are sensitive; they can’t make a home and raise young in dense common reed or open water ponds.
The bad news is that despite a whole lot of work to restore our Great Lakes, these bird populations are still declining. The good news is that we know how to save them, we just have to double our efforts. By eliminating and preventing new invasive species, restoring and replicating natural hydrology, and planting native marsh plants, we can bring many of these birds back almost immediately. To borrow from one of the greatest Midwest movies of all-time, “if you build it, they will come”. These incredible species tell us how to save our wetlands and water. It won’t be easy and it won’t be fast, but if we want future generations to enjoy the wonders of birds and nature and abundant and clean water, it’s worth it.
Nathaniel Miller is Audubon’s Director of Conservation for the Great Lakes and Upper Mississippi Flyway.