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Upper Midwest Environmental Sciences Center

Maps, Models, and Tools for Bird Conservation Planning

Project Description

Bird enthusiasts and ornithologists are working together to conserve the diversity of birds across North America by focusing on habitat conservation. To identify the best locations for conservation action, scientists Red-headed woodpecker, Grasshopper sparrow, Wood thrushare interested in predicting where bird species of conservation concern can be found. These species have been identified by the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) as being at risk of population declines. The benefits of research addressing regional and national migratory bird conservation are compelling and are among the core research responsibilities of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). Some of the most common questions that managers ask include the following:

  • Where on the landscape can we expect to find species of conservation concern?

  • How many individuals of the species exist and where are the population "hot spots" or areas where the population is greatest?

  • What conservation actions will benefit the species?

  • How will threats such as urban sprawl, timber harvest, mineral extraction, or climate change affect bird populations?

Scientists at the USGS Upper Midwest Environmental Sciences Center have developed statistical models for predicting and mapping habitat associations across entire ecoregions for species at risk like the cerulean warbler (Dendroica cerulea).

Predicted relative abundance of cerulean warblers in the Prairie Hardwood Transition Ecoregion
Predicted relative abundance of cerulean warblers in the Prairie Hardwood Transition Ecoregion, a conservation region identified for bird management. The model predicts that Allegan and Barry State Game Areas and Department of Defense Custer Reserve Forces Training Area in Michigan have high abundances of cerulean warblers. Managers can use this information to monitor cerulean warbler populations and develop forest bird conservation partnerships for this region.

To build the models, we use data from the North American Breeding Bird Survey (BBS), a continental USGS program for monitoring the status and trends of North American bird populations. We link the BBS data with digital maps of land cover, elevation, soil, moisture, and climate and derive bird-habitat models. These models describe the complex set of environmental conditions that support populations of a particular species. Finally, from these models we create maps that depict where a species is likely to be found within a state or region and how many individuals are likely to be there. The North American Bird Conservation Initiative, an international effort to conserve migratory bird populations, has defined Bird Conservation Regions (BCRs), based on similar climate, soils, and vegetation. We are developing maps and predictive models estimating the relative abundance of birds within several of these BCRs in the eastern and midwestern United States.

bird conservation regions
The USGS Upper Midwest Environmental Sciences Center is developing maps of bird distribution and abundance for four bird conservation regions in eastern North America. These bird conservation regions were defined on the basis of similar topography, vegetation, and climate, all factors that influence the bird species found there.

Research objectives:

    1. Develop methods for estimating the relative abundance of birds across BCRs. Produce habitat models and maps for the cerulean warbler and other bird species of conservation concern.
    2. Develop decision support (DSS) tools to help resource managers rapidly assess landscape attributes and link these attributes with species/habitat information. This information helps them identify and prioritize habitats and species for conservation actions and future monitoring.
    3. Assist resource managers with the application of geographic information systems (GIS) tools and models to conservation planning.

We initially developed maps and predictive models for birds breeding in the Prairie-Hardwood Transition Bird Conservation Region (BCR 23). Because the cerulean warbler is a bird of high conservation concern in the eastern United States due to population declines over the last 10 years, we are extending our modeling to include the majority of the cerulean warbler breeding range in North America. The breeding ranges of at least 33 other birds of conservation concern overlap with the breeding range of the cerulean warbler, making these species candidates for modeling also. We plan to focus our work in four BCRs: the Prairie-Hardwood Transition (BCR 23), the Appalachian Mountains (BCR 28), Central Hardwoods (BCR 24), and the Lower Great Lakes/St. Lawrence Plain (BCR 13) . Species are selected through consultation with partner agencies like the FWS and the states. To evaluate the accuracy of our models, we are assembling bird point count and atlas data throughout these regions from the National Wildlife Refuges, the National Point Count Database and other sources.

Bird Conservation Region 23 within U.S. Fish and Wildlife Region 3
Bird Conservation Region 23 within U.S. Fish and Wildlife Region 3.

Management applications :

Resource managers can use the models and maps to identify and prioritize species and habitats for conservation actions and future monitoring. For example, the maps help identify potential high-quality habitats in proximity to existing U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) refuges and other wildlife management areas. Conservation partners can focus on these areas to restore habitats or protect important species. The models are also used to identify new potential management areas.

Resource managers may use future extensions of this habitat modeling as a basis for evaluating threats to breeding habitats. Any threats that can be mapped (e.g., urban sprawl, timber harvest, mineral extraction, acid rain, climate change) can be compared with maps depicting locations of bird concentrations to judge the magnitude of threats to the species. We are currently exploring ways to use the models and maps as a basis for estimating total population size for bird species of conservation concern.  

Decision support:

We have developed desktop and Web-based decision support tools to help managers with conservation planning. Decision support tools are computer applications or data useful to resource managers making conservation decisions. We are working with resource managers to implement and extend the application of these tools for conservation planning in the four BCRs, incorporating our maps and models.

Major contributors to the project:

Relevance to Department of the Interior national goals:

Our work addresses the program goals of the Department of the Interior, including the following: 

  • USGS Wildlife Program- Develop tools such as predictive models, decision support, and expert systems for management of wildlife and plant populations and their habitats. Address the needs of declining migratory bird populations.
  • USGS Status and Trends of Natural Resources- Facilitate the integration of information from a variety of sources at multiple spatial and temporal scales to describe and track the abundance, distribution, productivity, and health of the Nation's plants, animals, and ecosystems.
  • FWS Migratory Bird Program- Protect, restore, and manage migratory bird populations to maximize their ecological sustainability and socioeconomic benefits. Protect, conserve, and restore migratory bird habits to ensure long-term sustainability of all migratory bird populations

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