Coastal Wetlands Offer Needed Haven for Imperiled Birds

World Migratory Bird Day offers chance to highlight benefits of protecting these vital way stations

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Coastal Wetlands Offer Needed Haven for Imperiled Birds
A flock of black-winged birds with their wings fully stretched flies low over a tan marsh interspersed with still blue water.
Coastal wetlands play a significant part in our planet's health and are important to humans and other species, including migratory birds, such as the flock of black skimmers seen above flying over a wetland in California.
Hal Beral Getty Images

Imagine a world devoid of bird calls, with mountains, rivers, beaches, and forests missing a soundtrack that has sustained for 150 million years. Although such a scenario, reminiscent of Rachel Carson's influential book "Silent Spring," remains highly unlikely, scientists are sounding alarms about the dramatic decline in bird populations worldwide. A 2019 study published in Science documented those declines, including the loss of nearly 3 billion birds in North America alone since 1970. Habitat loss and degradation, driven by coastal disturbance, pollution, and rising sea levels, are the primary culprits.

And along the world’s shorelines, coastal wetlands play an outsize role in sustaining bird populations. By providing feeding, breeding, and nesting areas for a wide variety of avian species, these ecosystems—in particular salt marshes and mangroves—are sanctuaries for migratory birds facing significant challenges. On World Migratory Bird Day (May 11), here are some reasons it's important to protect and conserve coastal wetlands and the birds that visit them:

They're refueling stations for birds on the move

Coastal wetlands are brimming with food for avian travelers. Salt marshes, with their cordgrasses, provide a buffet of insects, fish, and crustaceans for shorebirds. The intricate root structures of mangroves harbor shellfish and many fish species, attracting larger birds such as herons and egrets. This abundance—including the healthy plant life in these habitats—is crucial for migration, allowing birds to rest and refuel for the next leg of their journeys. During migration, birds can travel thousands of miles, often facing stretches of harsh weather and limited food.

Birds are vital for a healthy planet

As pollinators and seed dispersers, birds help a diverse array of plants thrive. Birds also act as natural pest control, keeping insect populations in check. Without this control, some insects could overpopulate, harming crops and driving increased pesticide use, which in turn would harm the environment. Declining bird populations can also disrupt seed dispersal, decreasing plant diversity and overall ecosystem health.

Three birds are perched on the tops of leafless brown tree limbs. Each has a pink body, with a bright pink stripe on each wing and a long white neck, and their beaks are long with a flattened circular end.
Coastal wetlands can provide a safe haven and a refueling station for migratory birds, such as these roseate spoonbills in Honduras.
Nahún Robles Getty Images

Wetlands are a win-win for nature and society

Coastal wetlands are also crucial for human well-being. These ecosystems act as natural barriers, protecting coastal communities from floods and storm surges. The dense vegetation and root networks of healthy wetlands buffer the force of waves, lessening the impact of storms on coastal infrastructure and lives. Coastal wetlands also filter pollutants, which benefits communities that rely on these places for recreation and as sources of drinking water. They act as important carbon sinks as well, with the capacity to sequester more carbon below ground per acre than terrestrial forests.

A brown-bodied bird sits at the top of a cluster of green-leafed branches. Its head is white with a brown stripe from its eye to the back of its head and it has a pointed beak.
Coastal wetlands draw bird enthusiasts from near and far hoping to glimpse migratory birds, such as this osprey in Senegal.
Michele D'Amico supersky77 Getty Images

Healthy coastal wetlands also deliver economic benefits, providing jobs and income for coastal communities by supporting vital fisheries, outdoor recreation, and ecotourism operations. Birdwatching enthusiasts from around the world come to tour coastal wetlands, bringing significant revenue into local economies.

The Road to Recovery

Despite the threats pressing on coastal wetlands, humankind can still turn the tide. Conservation efforts focused on protecting and restoring coastal wetlands are critical. The 2019 Science study also found that increased funding in wetland protection and conservation have led to the recovery of some waterfowl populations in certain parts of the world. To build on this progress, governments should include coastal wetland protection and restoration targets in their nationally determined contributions to the Paris Agreement—that is, their international climate commitments.

A flock of black-winged birds with their wings fully stretched flies low over a tan marsh interspersed with still blue water. Imagine a world devoid of bird calls
Birds fly over the Edwin B. Forsythe Reserve in New Jersey. Coastal wetlands, in particular mangroves and salt marshes, are sanctuaries for migratory birds.
Vicki Jauron, Babylon and Beyond Photography Getty Images

There is much more that governments can do to safeguard bird habitats around the world. But by conserving and restoring coastal wetlands, policymakers at all levels can lock in immediate and long-lasting gains for wildlife, nature, and people and help ensure that the songs, calls, and cries of birds continue far into the future.

Michael Latimer works on The Pew Charitable Trusts’ advancing coastal wetlands conservation project.  

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