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A critical member of Delaware’s ecosystem is on the path to recovery

 A red knot bird on the beach.
Delaware Public Media
A red knot bird on the beach.

The rufa red knot is one of the longest-distance migratory species. And each year, they make a critical stop in Delaware for food to continue their journey to their Arctic breeding ground.

Red knot populations have declined by 75% since the 1980s and in 2014 the bird landed a spot on the federal threatened species list.

Historically, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service attributed the population decline to the overharvest of horseshoe crabs, the bird’s primary food source in the Delaware Bay. With that now regulated, the primary threats to these birds are related to climate change.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist Wendy Walsh was lead author of the Red Knot Recovery Plan that seeks to get the red knot off of the federal threatened species list.

Walsh says habitat loss from sea-level rise, changes in migrational timing, and decreased food availability are all threats caused by climate change. But the Recovery Plan can’t directly address the root cause.

“There’s really not much we can do directly there. So the main approach of the recovery plan is to try to alleviate all of the other threats. So the birds have enough space to adapt to the changing climate.”

This includes local and federal initiatives to manage marine harvests, manage human disturbance on beaches, coastline habitat restoration, and conduct local surveys to monitor bird populations and behaviors.

Former American Birding Association president Jeff Gordon says one the biggest threat to red knots is the lack of awareness about them, despite recovery plan actions having potential to benefit people too.

Quinn Kirkpatrick
Delaware Public Media

“If we’re successful in preserving the conditions that horseshoe crabs and red knots like, we’re going to have a huge leg up in keeping the things that people have always liked about the bay: the abundant seafood, the nice environment, and clean water. It’s all tied together.”

Funding and resources for recovery come in part from the Delaware River Basin Conservation Act and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.

The Delaware River Basin Conservation Act works to identify, prioritize, and implement restoration activities in the Delaware River Basin. Amongst the many projects it has contributed to includes the restoration of wetlands at Bombay Hook and Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuges.

In March, the Delaware Congressional Delegation introduced legislation to reauthorize the Delaware River Basin Conservation Act through September 30, 2030 to allow for more accessibility in restoration projects.

Kyla Hastie, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Acting Regional Director, says its focus on habitat restoration directly impacts red knots, with well over $1 million in funding from the Act going toward red know recovery.

The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law has also allowed for $26 million to be allocated toward the cause.

Sen. Tom Carper says he’s currently working on pushing for the passage of the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act in Congress. If passed, it would provide funding for the conservation or restoration of wildlife and plant species with the greatest need. This includes endangered or threatened species, like the red knot.

Carper says he’s confident that they will get this legislation passed.

“And when we do, we'll unleash a lot of resources from states, and nonprofits, and the federal government to make sure that the red knots and other species that are endangered are gonna be here with us, not just for our generation, or our kids and grandchildren, but maybe forever.”

The Red Knot Recovery Plan is available here.

Quinn Kirkpatrick was born and raised in Wilmington, Delaware and a graduated of the University of Delaware. She joined Delaware Public Media in June 2021