Birds and Rivers: The Importance of a River Ecosystem

By Lauren Pharr | July 1, 2020

This is the first in a series of posts by guest blogger Lauren Pharr, an ornithologist and science communicator, who will be sharing her knowledge, experience, and thoughts with us over the next year as we continue to “Garden for the Birds!” 

As a fellow nature enthusiast and wildlife biologist, it is important for me to consider the world that is around me. When looking at a specific plant or animal species, one must be fully aware of the other factors that may affect that particular organism, whether good or bad. However, this idea can be easily forgotten and taken for granted. Birds are wonderful indicator species for our environment; they give us more insight into areas such as climate change, urbanization effects, and even habitat quality. In return for this organism providing scientists with such impactful information, we as human beings must do everything that we can to protect the environment that they live in as well. Rivers are one of those features that should be greatly protected in order to enhance and ensure the longevity and biodiversity for not just birds, but for all wildlife species who depend on them. However, rivers are also something that most people may not think of as being important and having a lasting effect on inhabiting bird species.

An osprey overlooking a kayaker on the Willamette. Photo: Holly Crosson

In this post, I will be going over the importance of rivers, their link to birds, some background on the Willamette River, and some simple things you can do as a citizen to protect rivers. This article will be mainly discussing birds and their interactions with rivers, however, an abundance of plant and animal species call rivers home. Therefore, keep an open mind that anything that I discuss not only applies to birds, but also applies to a large variety of organisms who depend on rivers everyday.

The Importance of Rivers  

A 2010 study by Strayer and Dudgeon summarizes the importance of rivers very well: although they occupy less than 1% of the Earth’s surface, river ecosystems support a disproportionately large fraction of its biodiversity, while acting also as significant corridors for the movement of plants, animals and nutrients. Birds depend on rivers for food, water, and habitat sources. Rivers are also an effective way for birds to migrate from one landscape to another. Factors that affect the river system such as river flow or pollution can also bring about change, or a shift, in biodiversity. Research has also found that climate change is having an effect on rivers. In mid-2016, scientists found that rerouting of meltwater from the Kaskawulsh glacier in Canada’s Yukon Territory had an effect on the flow of two separate rivers.  Precipitation patterns are also shifting and more storms will lead to an increase in polluted runoff from urban and agricultural areas into rivers.  

A great-blue heron flying over the Willamette. Photo: Holly Crosson

Rivers and Birds: What is the Link? 

So exactly how are rivers and birds linked? When it comes to any organism, sources of habitat manipulation and deforestation will directly affect the rivers and in turn will directly affect any animal who depends on them. The chances of organisms having access to food, water, and even to reproduce dwindles. Rivers are used by birds in a number of ways: wetlands provide them with breeding grounds, rivers are sources for food and water, and rivers are a useful system that helps certain birds navigate. Some main factors that are directly affecting river ecosystems include human activities such as damming, recreational activities, and pollution from urban areas. These effects will then lead to a direct effect on birds. For example, damming causes a huge shift in rivers by changing the way that rivers function and flow. This can cause water systems to either heat up or cool down and, in turn, affect sensitive species. Oxygen (02) levels can also decrease, causing harm to fish or any other organisms that birds may depend on for food. Without fish and insects, a bird’s food sources will become scarce and decrease over time. Pollution is another example which causes harm to not only food sources but also to water quality. This will again be passed up the food chain to birds and other animals that consume these food sources. Scientists who have been studying the effects of urbanization on rivers in Southern Wales found that a particular bird species, The European Dipper, had hormone issues that strongly correlated with the chemicals found in the fish and insects being consumed. Overall health and reproductive outcome were impacted by increased urbanization.

The Importance of the Willamette River in Oregon

According to current trends, the demand for water in Oregon’s Willamette River Basin will double by 2050. Scientists have put in the work to study up on this Basin, trying to find the best ways possible to develop new sources of water. Not only is the water in the Willamette used by agricultural practices, but it is also serving as an ecological value. Species such as salmon and other fish who use this river have been put under the Endangered Species Act for the purpose of conservation, and this also allows for decision making of potential uses of the basin to be thought out more clearly. This protection of fish benefits the many species of birds who also depend on the Willamette River. According to Eco Health Reportcards: How Healthy is your Willamette River, the Willamette River scored an overall “B-” in the year 2015. Looking more specifically into different areas, the Bald Eagle (listed under US Fish and Wildlife) had a very healthy score of 60-80% in the lower and middle regions of the Willamette River and a score of 80-100% in the upper region.

The Willamette River, flowing through Benton County, Oregon. Photo: Laura Brown

Restoration and conservation of the Willamette River has continued to improve. There have been past and ongoing projects which have helped with the success of this river, allowing various species and ecosystems to thrive while also allowing for necessary and appropriate ecological uses. Some of the past and current projects with the Willamette River in Oregon include the those done at Wapato Cove and Collins Bay by Benton SWCD, Oaks Bottom Habitat Enhancement Project, Tryon Creek Confluence Project, SW Texas Green Street Project, and many more.

How can you preserve and protect rivers? 

The majority of rivers around the world are continuing to receive the protection they need from government laws and regulations. With this protection, not only has are rivers preserved for years to come, but surrounding ecosystems, including birds, are also benefiting.

So what can you do as an everyday person to help protect rivers for not only birds but for all kinds of wildlife? Just making a small change can go a big way. I have highlighted some simple things that you can start doing to help keep your local rivers clean and safe:

-Be wary of your yard and household practices: properly dispose of hazardous chemicals and be sure to use things such as pesticides and fertilizers sparingly. This can prevent runoff of these chemicals into nearby water sources.

Benton SWCD volunteers at the Great Willamette Clean Up in October 2018.

-Practice responsible outdoor activities: dispose of trash properly.

-Be sure to not disturb habitats such as displacement of rocks in rivers. This can affect the habitat of creatures who live under the rocks. Leave nature as you found it.

Lastly, become an Advocate: participate in a stream, lake, or river cleanups, including those that Benton SWCD offers! Benton SWCD hosts Paddle and Weed Pulls each summer to keep aquatic invasive species in the Willamette River under control. They also partner with Willamette Riverkeeper in the Great Willamette Clean Up each fall to clean up trash along the river.

The biggest and most important advice of all is to share your knowledge about what you have learned here and anywhere else with friends and family. Making people more aware of environmental problems will make others think about taking the initiative to become more aware of the world around them and become a strong advocate for it.

Rivers are a wonderful part of nature and they are here for us to enjoy. We must also remember that rivers are also homes. Continue to enjoy nature, but always keep in mind that you are entering someone’s home. Continue to preserve and protect nature’s homes for years to come, the environment is depending on us.

About the Author

Lauren Pharr

Lauren D. Pharr is a current Graduate Research Assistant at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, North Carolina. Lauren is also an Ornithologist and Science Communicator, having written and contributed to pieces for The Cincinnati Zoo, WIRED Magazine, and Discover Magazine. To learn more about Lauren and follow her research, visit her Instagram, Twitter, and website:

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