Conservationists have known for years that the birds of Fairlawn Plantation are a treasure to be protected.

Now Audubon South Carolina has made it official, and in doing so has boosted the odds that significant bird populations on the 8,000-acre tract near Awendaw will be maintained.

By designating Fairlawn an Important Bird Area (IBA), Audubon has taken a key first step to work with Fairlawn owners, engage volunteers and encourage conservation projects all geared toward preserving the habitat to benefit birds.

The IBA program identifies areas most essential for maintaining bird populations — areas most worthy of special conservation support.

Fairlawn was approved as an IBA after a comprehensive inventory, using scientific methodology. Among the property’s residents warranting its selection are:

■ Red-cockaded woodpeckers, a federally endangered species, bore out cavities in pine trees where a number of other birds and small mammals can later find a home.

■ Swallow-tailed kites, a rare species considered endangered by the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, experienced a dramatic decrease in population between 1800 and 1910. DNR estimates South Carolina has only between 120 and 170 breeding pairs. The birds spend much of the day in flight catching insects and other prey including treefrogs and small snakes.

■ Three species of warblers are on Audubon’s watch list: the brightly colored prothonotary warbler, which takes its name from “protonatary,” an official of the Catholic church who wears a bright yellow hood; the yellow-below, olive-above Kentucky warbler; and Swainson’s warbler, whose population was estimated at 84,000 in 2007.

■ The painted bunting, among North America’s most colorful birds, is found only in the Carolinas, Georgia and Florida.

Conservationists had hoped to acquire an easement on Fairlawn Plantation through Charleston County’s rural Greenbelt program, but the deal unfortunately fell through. It is the largest parcel of privately held land inside the Francis Marion National Forest.

Fairlawn’s owners have endorsed its designation as an IBA and are cooperating to maintain this vital habitat for birds.

The designation can be useful for garnering support for conservation efforts. Or it can help shape decisions about where to route highways or place developments, for example.

Fairlawn is the 50th IBA in the state, which has a total of more than 1.3 million acres of critical bird habitat.

Earning this designation is of major benefit to the rare, and not-so-rare, birds that live there. And conserving those birds is of tremendous benefit to South Carolina and beyond.