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Thousands of participants are heading out to conduct the annual North American Breeding Bird Survey, a program initiated in 1966 to track the health of wild bird populations across the continent. This is an international effort, jointly coordinated by the U.S. Geological Survey, Canadian Wildlife Service and Mexican National Commission for the Knowledge and Use of Biodiversity.

Prairie Warbler
Breeding Bird Survey results reveal that the prairie warbler has experienced significant population declines similar to those seen in much of the rest of the shrubland bird suite. This shows how survey results can inform conservation planning about species and the overall health of their habitats.  Photograph credit: Bill Hubick.

For more than a half century, survey results have helped land and resource managers understand the status and trends of more than 500 bird species, providing a foundation for management and conservation decisions. The survey is primarily conducted by volunteers, or “citizen scientists,” who are highly skilled in identifying and counting birds by sight and sound. 

Eastern Bluebird
Breeding Bird Survey results provide the record of how eastern bluebird populations increased by 3% per year between 1980 and 2010, when it was becoming increasingly popular for home and landowners to provide artificial nest boxes. Photograph credit: William A. Link.

Survey results were fundamental to recent findings that North America has lost nearly 3 billion birds during the past five decades. That study, which was co-authored by the USGS, found there are 29% fewer birds in the United States and Canada today than in 1970.

Birds provide significant contributions to the environment and society. They prey on insects and rodents, pollinate plants, spread seeds and serve as food for many animals. Popular pastimes, such as bird watching, hunting and related tourism activities, contribute to the economy. Approximately 45 million people participate in bird watching in the U.S., spending $41 billion per year on related trips and equipment alone. Hunting of migratory and upland game birds brings billions of dollars to the economy. Birds are also indicators of environmental health because they are sensitive to changes and stressors in their surroundings.

“The Breeding Bird Survey has provided critical insight on the health of North American birds for the past 54 years,” said Thomas O’Connell, director of the USGS Eastern Ecological Science Center. “The survey is conducted on an annual basis and follows consistent and standardized methods that allow for an accurate understanding of population change, helping inform decisions related to bird conservation across the continent.”

This research helps land and resource managers identify how birds are impacted by diseases and environmental toxins, invasive species, climate change, human activity, alterations to land cover and other influences. This includes identifying priority locations for conservation as well as at-risk species before they are candidates for listing under the U.S. Endangered Species Act and Canadian Species at Risk Act.

“As in past years, we’re expecting more than 2,000 participants,” said O’Connell. “Since surveys take place over large areas with limited interaction with people, they are a great opportunity for our volunteers, who are so critical to the effort, to contribute to the conservation of North American birds while socially distancing and enjoying the benefits of being in nature. The safety of participants is our top priority, and while much of the upcoming season will operate as previous years, guidelines have been provided to minimize risk of exposure to coronavirus.”

State and local safety measures during the pandemic may differ depending on locations, so BBS staff advise participants to comply with local guidance. Other guidelines include performing surveys alone or with those in a participant’s “social bubble,” maintaining a distance of six feet from others, wearing a mask, practicing good hygiene with proper hand sanitizing and not conducting surveys if feeling sick.

Field activities for the 2020 survey were cancelled in response to the coronavirus pandemic. That decision was made to be consistent with last year’s shelter in place recommendations and nonessential travel policies issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This ensured that BBS activities did not contribute an exposure risk. In addition, there was limited access to roadways on BBS survey routes due to closed public lands.

Map of Breeding Bird Survey Routes
Blue dots show the locations of Breeding Bird Survey routes across North America. The Breeding Bird Survey is unparalleled in having measured populations of hundreds of bird species throughout the continent over the past half century. Credit USGS. (Public domain.)

Each year, approximately 2,200 observers perform surveys on nearly 3,300 routes. Assisting them are an additional 1,000 or so participants, who help with driving, collecting GPS coordinates and recording descriptions of the surrounding environment. Approximately 225,000 miles and more than 22,500 hours are logged annually by the survey’s dedicated workforce. BBS staff compile and analyze the data and release it to the public.

The project’s title refers to breeding birds because the survey is done during the peak of breeding season, ranging from April to July depending on the location. This time is ideal for reoccurring population counts because most birds are not in migration.

More Information

Visit the USGS Eastern Ecological Science Center’s website on the BBS at

Read the 2020-2030 Strategic Plan for the BBS at

See the road map for how the Strategic Plan is being applied in the BBS Action Plan at

Wood Thrush
The wood thrush has experienced an almost 50% decline in overall abundance since the Breeding Bird Survey began in 1966. Survey results have clarified that subpopulations in some regions of the continent, such as the eastern seaboard, have experienced the most severe losses. Photograph credit: Bill Hubick.
Loggerhead Shrike
The loggerhead shrike is one of North America's most unique songbirds and a beneficial predator of mice and insects. Breeding Bird Survey results identify a population loss of nearly 80% across the United States and Canada since 1966. Despite an overall steep decline, populations in Idaho, Montana and Oregon have remained relatively stable. Photograph credit: Bill Hubick.
Wild Turkey
Few birds have experienced the kind of continent-wide expansion and population growth that the wild turkey has undergone. Breeding Bird Survey data captured the positive outcomes of state and local restoration activities that began in the 1980s and continue to present day.  Photograph credit: Bill Hubick.
Eastern Bluebird
An eastern bluebird near the C&O Canal in Washington County, Maryland. Photograph credit: Bill Hubick.

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