Can’t Live Without ‘Em: Shorebirds

If red knots go the way of the dodo, there’s a lot more at stake than just losing yet another one of nature’s treasures. With the imperiled shorebird species in serious trouble, local communities up and down the East Coast also stand to lose millions of dollars in revenue from avid birders and casual wildlife tourists alike.

Each spring, thousands of visitors flock to New Jersey’s Delaware Bay to catch a glimpse of numerous shorebirds, including red knots, which swarm onto beach heads in search of eggs deposited by horseshoe crabs. In total, nearly half a million birders pass through the bay area each year, spending between $6 and $10 million on their trips, with an economic multiplier of $12 to $20 million once the money filters through local communities. (Read this full report on bay area ecotourism, prepared for the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife in 2000).

But all those dollars could quickly disappear along with the dwindling populations of shorebirds. Fellow Defenders blogger Caitlin Leutwiler recently reported that populations of migrating red knots recorded in southern Chile declined by 5,000, putting the overall population below 25,000. Losing one-fifth of the entire population in a single year is a huge concern, especially since climate change continues to wreak havoc on the red knots’ food supply and extreme migration.

Many shorebirds rely on the eggs of horseshoe crabs as an essential source of protein in order to complete their long migratory journeys. But overfishing for bait and the biomedical industry have sent the population of horseshoe crabs into a tailspin from which they’ve yet to recover. With such a reduced population, ocean acidification and the increased frequency and intensity of hurricanes and tropical storms brought on by climate change could deal the species a final blow. The entire ecosystem of horseshoe crabs, shorebirds and other coastal and marine species is at risk unless action is taken to protect them.

Red knots are quickly becoming another proverbial “canary in the coal mine” for the snowballing effects of climate change. With one of the longest migrations in the entire world, from the Canadian Arctic to as far as the tip of South America, the loss of red knots will literally be felt throughout ecosystems halfway around the world. That includes the hundreds of business owners and wildlife enthusiasts that benefit from a booming ecotourism industry around the Delaware Bay.

Learn more:

See how a listing under the Endangered Species Act could save the red knot.

Get more background on red knots and see how Defenders is working to save them.

Red knots, © Andrew Harper

Red knots migrate all the way from the Canadian Arctic to the tip of South America.

Red knots, © Andrew Harper

A closeup of Mispillion red knots on the beach

Red knots, © Andrew Harper

A platoon of red knots take to the sky.

Red knot, © Steve Winter

One Response to “Can’t Live Without ‘Em: Shorebirds”

  1. Andrew Harper

    This is an amazing story of wildlife migration and how a species relies on the Horseshoe Crab for survival. I was honored to see these scientists study these birds. We need to protect these birds now by putting a moratorium on the harvest of horseshoe crabs until the population bounces back.

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