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new jersey department of environmental protection  


Living with the Future in Mind
Goals and Indicators for New Jersey's Quality of Life
First Annual Update to the Sustainable State Project Report 2000

Indicator 31

Additional  Natural and Ecological Integrity  Indicators

30 - Freshwater Wetlands

32 - River Health

33 - Marine Water Quality

Nesting Water Bird Populations

Population of nesting colonies of water birds: Decreasing

  Things to think about 

Water birds such as herons and egrets were once almost wiped out by the millinery trade but made a great comeback once laws were put into place to protect them from hunting and trapping. Their current decline stems both from habitat loss, which may not be possible to reverse, as well as from human disturbance, excessive predation, and possibly exposure to contaminants and pesticides, which may be reversible.

· Water birds nest in large colonies and thus need large undisturbed areas for nesting and breeding.



Our populations of American egrets, night herons, and other water birds are declining. Water birds are generally at the top of the food chain, and so their well-being can serve as an indicator of the general health of the ecosystem on which they rely: in this case, our wetlands and shore. If water birds are declining, we can also infer that the species they eat, such as fish, amphibians, and insects, are also in trouble. This decline is due in part to the over-development of shoreline areas and wetlands.


Bird watching is the fastest- growing outdoor sport in the United States. This indicator is important to watch not only for the direct contribution of bird watchers to our economy, but because the habitat that water birds prefer is also the habitat preferred by vacationers seeking refuge from a busy world. If this habitat is lost, it will have other economic impacts, such as additional flooding, water supply degradation, and weakened fisheries.


Water birds react to many changes in the environment, including excessive human disturbance or disruption. Their decline alerts us to many environmental problems, from pollution to habitat loss. They are good indicators of toxics because they are long-lived, feed high on the food chain, and are reproductively sensitive. As a result, they are a "plural indicator species." Declining populations of indicator species can indicate an ecological unraveling that threatens our state’s natural capital as well as the clean air and water provided to us "for free" by nature.


Birds, like all of New Jersey’s wildlife, are part of our heritage and our memories. They are part of what it means to explore the back bays, lagoons, and marshes of our state and to participate in the tradition of experiencing nature.

Knowledge Gaps

These data account for a small number of species in a small section of New Jersey. We need population data for many other species of birds and animals for each of New Jersey’s many habitats and ecosystems. Since water birds are migratory, data are necessary to account for what happens to them after they leave New Jersey. A clearer understanding of the factors involved in water bird population decline would also be useful. Additional data are needed for this indicator, as this survey has not been conducted since 1995. However, resources to update the data are being pursued.

Data Source: NJ Department of Environmental Protection

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Copyright © State of New Jersey, 1996-2006
Department of Environmental Protection
P. O. Box 402
Trenton, NJ 08625-0402

Last Modified: May 1, 2007

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