Birds play a critical role in maintaining natural ecosystems. They help control pests, pollinate plants – which ensures food security – disperse seeds, and support the delicate balance between plant and herbivore, predator and prey. But human activities are shrinking down and fragmenting birds’ natural habitats, from land conversion to introducing invasive animals, threatening the survival of countless species. These are just seven of the world’s most endangered bird species that are in dire need of saving.
Most Endangered Bird Species
Also known as the owl parrot, the kakapo is a nocturnal and flightless parrot endemic to New Zealand. Historically, they roamed across Polynesia and New Zealand but today, the critically endangered bird species are confined to just two small islands off the coast of southern New Zealand. There are only about 140 individuals left in the wild due to predation of invasive species such as cats and stoats that were introduced for hunting purposes. These predators have also targeted unattended eggs when females forage for food, impeding population growth and recovery. Despite intensive conservation efforts starting from more than 125 years ago, genetic diversity remains low within the kakapo population and is still extremely vulnerable to extinction, especially with disease outbreaks.
New Zealand is also home to another flightless and critically endangered species, the kiwi, with only five species remaining in the wild. Much like the kakapo, kiwi had little defence against invasive predators like stoats and ferrets. Combined with habitat loss of their native forest for land development and conversion for farming purposes as well as early hunting and trapping, the kiwi population struggled and saw numbers plummet. Dedicated conservation measures have boosted numbers to about 1,600 in the wild today, including a strategy that sees scientists collecting kiwi eggs to incubate in a laboratory. Eggs are replaced with artificial 3D printed ones before the real eggs are returned to the mother when it’s time to hatch. However, not all Kiwi species are being successfully conserved. The rowi species for example is deemed “vulnerable” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) with only 400 individuals remaining.
3. California Condor
Despite being the largest known wild bird in North America – with a wingspan of 9.5 feet and weighing up to 25 pounds – and historically ranging from California to Florida and Western Canada to Northern Mexico, the California Condor is now mostly contained within the states of California, Arizona and Utah. Due to rampant lead poisoning, where birds often ingest bullet fragments left in prey carcasses, and pesticide DDT consumption, which reduced eggshell thickness, the bird species has been pushed to the very brink of extinction. In the 1980s, there were only six individuals left in the wild. The US Fish & Wildlife Service introduced a captive breeding and recovery programme, which eventually helped boost population numbers up to over 500.
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4. Hyacinth Macaw
This vibrantly blue parrot is the world’s largest flying parrot, and nests almost exclusively in large cavities of old Manduvi trees in the Amazon rainforest. Though they were once widely spread across Brazil, the hyacinth macaw are now mostly found in small pocket areas such as the state of Pará. Land clearing and deforestation in the Amazon has been the single biggest threat to the species, persistently removing the species’ precious natural habitats and resources. Under the Jair Bolsonaro administration, deforestation has been at record high levels, further threatening the macaw. Poaching and the exotic pet trade – for its unique coloured features – also saw at least 10,000 birds captured in the 1980s. Today, estimates place about 2,000-6,500 individuals left in the wild.
5. Mariana Fruit Dove
Native and endemic to the US island territory of Guam and the Northern Marianas Islands respectively, and the official bird of the latter, the Mariana fruit dove was essentially wiped out in Guam by the 1980s due to invasive species, namely the introduction of brown tree-snakes during the second World War. Across the other islands, the total population of the fruit dove dropped down to thousands due to predation and habitat loss – the bird lives and nests mostly in native primary and secondary forests. Despite captive breeding programmes conducted by several zoos including the St. Louis Zoo, the fruit dove remains categorised as endangered in the IUCN Red List.
6. North African Ostrich
Within the last century, the world’s largest bird went from roaming across the entire Sahara desert, spreading across 18 countries, to being a rare sight and confined to four countries (Cameroon, Chad, Central African Republic and Senegal). The North African Ostrich lost 99.8% of its historic range and a large portion of its population due to the combination of habitat loss from land conversion, food competition from livestock grazing, desertification, as well as being poached for its feathers, meat and egg. There have been major conservation efforts to restore the species including importing and reintroducing more ostriches to national parks in the region, as well as habitat rehabilitation to improve livestock fencing and management.
7. Burrowing Owl
The burrowing owl is one of the smallest owl species and can mostly be found in the prairie grasslands of Canada. Human-induced habitat loss and fragmentation, including land conversion for crop production, have driven its population to drop down to less than 1,000 pairs in the country. Farmers have drastically reduced burrowing owl’s prey such as prairie dogs and ground squirrels to maintain their crops. The use of pesticides in agriculture is also harming the species’ survival; large numbers have died from indirectly ingesting toxic chemicals when they consume animal carcasses. Conservationists have been pushing for efforts to steward habitats, discourage the extermination of prey species, and the use of predator-proof artificial nest burrows to help protect and restore the species.