Photo: Allen Crawford

8 Birds to Celebrate 50 Years of the Endangered Species Act

First enacted in 1973, the Endangered Species Act protects critical species. Allen Crawford illustrates.

THE SHORE TOWN IN southern New Jersey where I grew up lays in the path of one of the major bird migratory routes of North America. It overlooks Great Egg Harbor, a large bay enclosed by salt marshes and a broken strand of barrier islands that shelter the mainland from the full force of the North Atlantic. Even as a kid back in the 1970s, I knew much had been lost. Despite spending entire summers crabbing and fishing out in those green tidal expanses, I don’t remember seeing a single osprey, let alone a bald eagle. I also saw things that had not yet been lost, but now reside only in memory. In the autumn, the trees along the marshes were alive with thousands of monarch butterflies preparing to leave before the first hard frosts of autumn arrived.

This pattern of loss continued as the years passed. When the 2004 Athos I oil tanker spilled in the nearby Delaware River, my wife Susan and I joined the volunteer cleanup crew working in a makeshift wildlife hospital inside an abandoned office park. As Susan helped with handling the birds in the empty conference rooms, I laid down spill cloth and helped build outdoor sheds for the water heaters needed to clean the ducks and geese. According to NOAA, about 12,000 birds were killed by that spill.

More losses followed. I remember charging up the Schuylkill Expressway to deliver an injured belted kingfisher to a wildlife rehabilitation center. It didn’t survive the night. And I remember the day I read that nearly one-third of North America’s birds have vanished over the past fifty years.

But there have been hopeful moments, too. In the New Jersey Pine Barrens, I once found a cedar waxwing hanging from a branch, thrashing with a tangled fishing line around its neck. I kept it overnight to monitor its condition. By morning, it had recovered. Later that summer I was sitting in a kayak, watching shadowy plumes of purple martins envelop the setting sun over the Maurice River.


I think it is wise to be careful with hope. Demanding it can quickly become transactional, as if we are nature’s customers. That said, I realize how vital a little hope can be. I’m always encouraged while working alongside my fellow volunteers, naturalists, advocates, conservation officers, and scientists who study and protect imperiled species. I admire them all for stepping up and shouldering what is often a dirty, tedious, and discouraging endeavor. I’m proud to be counted among their ranks. My book A Wild Promise: An Illustrated Celebration of the Endangered Species Act is partially dedicated to them.

Today, I see hopeful signs in the salt marshes where I grew up. Ospreys are so numerous in the back bays of South Jersey that in some areas they have trouble finding roosting sites. Bald eagles have once more become a common sight in many places. For the better part of this remarkable recovery, and many others, we owe a debt of gratitude to everyone who helped bring the Endangered Species Act to life fifty years ago.

Our evolutionary history has left us unusually well-suited to deal with existential challenges. One of the ways humans overcome despair is to serve something larger, deeper, and longer-lived than themselves. People can endure misery much longer than they can endure a lack of purpose. From struggle comes purpose, and from purpose comes hope. In a world that currently seems to offer us everything but meaning, that’s a reassuring thought.



Loxops coccineus

Found only at two or three locations on the Big Island of Hawai’i. Eats spiders, invertebrates, and the nectar of several species of flowering plants like ‘Ōhi’a lehua.

Listed as endangered in 1970.
Estimated 2000 population: 14,000



Gymnogyps californianus

Ranges from the coastal mountains of central and southern California to northern Arizona and southern Utah. A survivor of the last Ice Age that once scavenged on the carcasses of now-extinct megafauna. Poison bait and the contamination of carcasses with lead shot are major threats.

Declared extinct in the wild in 1987.
At the time, only 27 condors remained.
By 2019 there were 518.



Pelecanus occidentalis

Lives on the Atlantic, Pacific, and Gulf coasts. Found as far north as Canada during the non-breeding season.

Estimated global population: 650,000.
isted as endangered in 1970.
Delisted in 2009. 



Grus americana

The only self-sustaining population breeds in Canada and winters on the Texas Gulf Coast. Destruction of habitat and overhunting were the main causes of the Whooping Crane’s decline from the estimated precolonial population of 10,000.

Population in 1941: 21.
Wild and captive population circa 2010: 535.
Total wild 2010 population: 383.
Listed as endangered in 1967.



Falco peregrinus anatum

Found in southwestern Texas to the southern Rockies and the California coast.

Listed as endangered in 1970.
Delisted in 1999. 



Mycteria americana

Small breeding populations in Florida, Georgia, and the Carolinas. Roosts in mangrove swamps and coastal wetlands. Over 8,000 nesting pairs in the United States. Larger populations in Mexico and South America.

Listed as endangered in 1984.
Delisted in 2014. Now listed as threatened in the U.S. 



Strix occidentalis caurina

Lives in old growth forests of the Pacific Northwest. 70% decline in population since 1995 attributed to habitat loss and competition with barred owls.

Fewer than 2,000 mated pairs survive in the wild.
Listed as threatened in 1990.



Vireo atricapilla

Ranged from Kansas to Oklahoma and Texas into Mexico. Nests in clusters of shin oak.

Listed as endangered in 1987.
Delisted in 2018


Excerpted from A Wild Promise: An Illustrated Celebration of the Endangered Species Act by Allen Crawford. Published with permission of Tin House. Copyright (c) 2023 by Allen Crawford. 

Purchase your copy of A Wild Promise: An Illustrated Celebration of the Endangered Species Act today.


Allen Crawford is the creator and illustrator of A Wild Promise: An Illustrated Celebration of the Endangered Species Act out from Tin House August, 2023.