Waterbird Conservation Key Sites and IBAs

Conservation of waterbirds requires many approaches, and one of the more effective is to focus on the sites where they live. Its effectiveness results from sites being practical targets for conservation action — units manageable for bird and biodiversity conservation and restoration — and the ability to build support groups for individual sites.

Waterbird populations may come to depend on specific areas and sites for their stability. Coloniality or congregatory behavior – gathering in colonies, roosts and feeding areas – result in discrete sites supporting sizable portions of local or wider populations at some time during the year. Waterbirds are also localized by specialized habitat requirements for nesting and/or for feeding, resulting in these habitats and sites being critically important for population health and sustainability.

A site-based approach to conservation involves identifying and focusing action on areas most critical to the species of concern. For birds, the International Important Bird Areas (IBAs) Program, initiated by BirdLife International in Europe in the 1980s, is a world-wide program aimed at identifying, monitoring and protecting a network of critical sites for the world’s birds. It is supported by partners around the world, including much of the Western Hemisphere. These sites provide essential habitat for one or more species of bird, and breeding, wintering, and/or migrating populations. IBAs may be a few acres or thousands of acres, but usually they are discrete sites that stand out from the surrounding landscape. IBAs may include public or private lands, or both, and they may be protected or unprotected.

IBAs are identified according to internationally-recognized criteria; an IBA must support:

  • Species of conservation concern (e.g. threatened and endangered species); or
  • Restricted-ranges species (species vulnerable because they are not widely distributed); or
  • Species that are vulnerable because their populations are concentrated in one general habitat type or biome; or
  • Species, or groups of similar species, that are vulnerable because they occur at high densities due to their congregatory behavior (e.g., many species of waterbird).
  • The use of a hierarchical classification system further helps to establish priorities for conservation efforts. A site may be important at a global, continental, national or smaller (e.g., state, provincial, regional) level.

Find out about the IBAs identified by partners in the Birdlife Americas Program.

The Regional Waterbird Conservation Plans integrate IBA information in their discussions of key areas for conservation action.

Currently, the IBA Program focuses on terrestrial sites. However, a number of efforts are underway to examine marine areas of importance to waterbirds and other organisms. Learn more at the World Commission on Protected Areas – Marine website.