This September marks the 100-year anniversary of the extinction of the passenger pigeon with the death of the last one, Martha, at the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914. The passenger pigeon was once North America's most abundant landbird, with populations estimated at 3 to 5 billion. The old tales defy imagination — flocks without end flying unbroken for days, stretching from horizon to horizon and blackening the sky, as described by John James Audubon in 1813.

This abundant bird still numbered in the billions in the 1860s. But shortly after the turn of the century, there were none left in the wild — the passenger pigeon went from billions to zero, in just 40 years.

It is tempting to think that such a loss could not occur again — not with our understanding of ecology and our laws designed to protect and conserve species. Not with our strong conservation ethic and demonstrated successes, like the recovery of the bald eagle and wild turkey. And yet we risk once again travelling down that same road.

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Case in point: four grand species of grouse could face that very same fate. Although never as numerous as the passenger pigeon, these dancing spectacles of nature — their elaborate spring mating displays were the inspiration for many Native American tribal dances — are at critically low population levels. Two species are already protected under the Endangered Species Act (ESA): the endangered Attwater's greater prairie chicken and the threatened lesser prairie chicken. Meanwhile, the Gunnison sage-grouse is currently being considered for endangered status, and the greater sage-grouse is the focus of tremendous private and public conservation efforts to avoid listing. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has until Sept. 30 to determine whether the bird should be listed, though legislation pending in Congress would extend that deadline by a decade. Meanwhile, federal agencies have initiated the National Greater Sage-Grouse Planning Strategy, an effort to update land-use plans with new measures to preclude the need to list the species. Although the Obama administration recently rejected a petition to compel the Interior Department to better protect the greater sage grouse from mining activity, energy development remains central to the debate. Amid the growing controversy, populations continue to decline, and our options and opportunities to save the species narrow. Sadly, the grouse is not alone.

According to the State of the Birds report released yesterday, 30 bird species that live in grasslands and arid lands like desert, sagebrush and chaparral are in need of conservation action. The State of the Birds is an annual assessment of the health of our nation's birds delivered to the president and the Department of Interior by scientists from more than 20 organizations, including the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the Nature Conservancy, Ducks Unlimited and the Fish and Wildlife Service. This year's report publishes a "Watch List" of 230 bird species that are either currently endangered or at risk of becoming endangered soon. Birds on the "Watch List" come from every habitat type in the United States. The list includes every single one of Hawaii's native forest species.

What can we do to avoid repeating past mistakes? Fortunately, we have existing policies and funding mechanisms that have proven successful in bird conservation. The State of the Birds shows that populations of wetland birds, once in precipitous decline, are steadily increasing because of our deliberate efforts. Many of these successes were made possible by funds generated from the sale of duck hunting stamps that protected wetlands, land protected through farmer incentives as in the Conservation Reserve Program in previous Farm Bills, and regulations such as the Clean Water Act that made our waters safer for birds and people alike. The job is not done, but the progress has been impressive. We have seen that conservation and restoration can work.

We can take important steps toward restoring America's birds by supporting the following policy actions:

  1. Fully fund key bird conservation legislation, such as the North American Wetlands Conservation Act and the Neotropical Migratory Bird Conservation Act.
  2. Increase the price of the Duck Stamp to $25 as supported by Ducks Unlimited and other conservation groups.
  3. Sign the Agreement on the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels treaty that endorses bird-friendly ocean fishing.
  4. Support successful conservation programs like the Land and Water Conservation Fund, Migratory Bird Joint Ventures and State and Tribal Wildlife Grants.
  5. Keep promises made in the Farm Bill by appropriating amounts authorized for conservation.

We can only imagine what those immense flocks of passenger pigeons must have looked like. But we have the power to avoid losing our dancing grouse and other birds on the "Watch List," and pass our natural heritage forward to future generations.

We have the power to avoid ever traveling again down the path to zero. 

Rodewald is director of conservation science at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, faculty fellow at Cornell University's Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future, an associate professor in the Department of Natural Resources at Cornell University, and a Robert F. Schumann Faculty Fellow. Views expressed in her column are hers alone and do not represent those of these institutions.