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Bird Migration: Help Track Migratory Birds

by Deborah Mitchell
The Challenge

The sight of thousands of migratory birds soaring overhead or circling for a landing at a stopover site is a symbol of wildlife at its best and freedom in action. Yet that symbol is in jeopardy.

Scientists have noted and studied the decline in the numbers of migratory bird species for several decades, and two likely reasons have emerged as the greatest threats to their survival: destruction of the tropical forests where many birds spend the winter, and disruption of their breeding and stopover habitats, especially coastal areas. Nearly 40 percent of the total US population lives in counties along the coast, and that number is projected to rise to nearly 50 percent by 2020, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. This encroachment by humans, along with rising sea levels and coastal erosion, are a serious threat to migratory birds.

Other reasons for the decline of migratory birds include hazards encountered during migration, such as:

  • bad weather
  • predation
  • hunters
  • collisions with man-made structures (e.g., buildings, airplanes, automobiles). In fact, approximately 600 million birds in the United States are killed each year when they crash into windows or die from exhaustion after they have become disoriented or mesmerized by lighted buildings

These factors are estimated to reduce by half all the birds that head south for the winter. Yet another danger is exposure to pesticides, which can cause death as well as reproductive problems, both of which reduce bird populations. Pesticide contamination is generally worse in Latin America, where many migratory birds make their winter homes, than in more northern areas.

Every year, millions of birds migrate in search of a more abundant food supply and to breed, and then turn around and make the trip back. For some the roundtrip is only a few hundred miles; black-capped vireos, painted buntings, and gray catbirds fall into this category. For others, the entire journey spans 13,000 to 20,000 miles or more. Common nighthawks, purple martins, cliff swallows, and scarlet tanagers winter in South America and log in miles at the lower end of this range, while the champion of migratory birds, the Arctic Tern, travels 22,000 miles or more from its North Pole summer home to winter near the South Pole.

But short or long, the number of migratory birds making these treks is dwindling, and the numbers will continue to decline unless we learn more about their migratory habits and help ensure they have a healthy environment in which to breed and live. Various state, federal, and public nonprofit organizations are dedicated to tracking and preserving migratory bird populations. And they can use your help - for a day, a week, or longer.

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If you want to help track migratory birds on your vacation, plan an autumn or spring getaway. Many of the organizations that offer volunteer opportunities with migratory birds do not provide accommodations, so you will need to make separate arrangements. Some groups concerned with the welfare of migratory bird populations are listed here. Contact them for specific details:

  • The National Audubon Society has more than 500 chapters. Contact the chapter in the area you wish to visit to see if they have a migratory bird or bird tracking program
  • The Canadian Migration Monitoring Network has more than 20 migration monitoring stations that need volunteers. Short-term volunteers may need to bring their own food and/or may pay a modest accommodation fee, while those staying a month or longer may be supplied with food and accommodations.
  • The North American Migration Count uses volunteers to gather information on the progress of spring migration and on the numbers and distribution of various migratory birds.
  • The World Birding Center, with nine locations in Texas, offers several volunteer opportunities involving migratory birds, such as the Hawk Watch, which happens during the peak of spring and fall raptor migration at Bentsen State Park as well as Bird Point Count Surveys, Breeding Bird Surveys, Specific-Species Surveys and special bird counting events. The length of volunteer times vary, depending upon which program you choose.
  • The International Shorebird Survey uses volunteers to count shorebirds during autumn and spring migrations throughout the United States, Central America, and South America. Your volunteer time can help the experts plan shorebird conservation for now and the future. 
  • Nature Canada offers several bird conservation programs, including breeding bird surveys and bird counts

"Free as a bird" should not just be an expression; it should be a guarantee for the millions of migratory birds that grace our skies and our planet. On your next vacation, you could help make that guarantee a reality.

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