This one’s for the birds

Over the last few weeks, I’ve had the chance to look at the status of migratory song birds, some of which are doing quite well (Baltimore orioles, for example: stable population, large range, sports team), while others are facing very bleak conditions (for a sobering experience, check out Golden-cheeked warblers, or, if you want to get depressed, Bachman’s warblers). But it is clear from the histories of some species, such as Eastern Bluebirds, that people can help reverse declines and support populations.


Isabelline/Red-tailed/Rufous-tailed Shrike, an insect-eating migrant found largely in Africa and Asia

Why should I get involved? Well, to begin with, birds are beautiful to look at and their presence adds to the natural beauty around us; US Fish & Wildlife says that about 500 of the nearly 800 bird species in the US migrate across borders. But aside from aesthetic and emotional benefits, song birds play important ecosystem roles by acting as pollinators and consuming insect pests. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, hummingbirds in North America have a fondness for columbine, bee balm, and honeysuckle nectar, but they also pollinate other plants and even eat insects such as gnats. Purple Martins and Scarlet Tanagers catch flying insects and Tennessee Warblers specialize in spruce budworms and other moth caterpillars. These song birds help reduce insect populations that can harm both us and the plants we depend upon for food and other resources. It seems to me a better strategy to support bird species that consume insect pests rather than relying upon pesticides.


There are many opportunities for you to help migratory song birds, ranging from writing letters to sitting outside with binoculars, just as there are many different birds that could use your help.


  • From your computer- The Neotropical Migratory Bird Conservation Act has been awaiting reauthorization from Congress since last summer- this act provides funding for hemisphere-wide projects that protect all migratory birds in all habitats. Projects must involve non-federal partners and matching money, and a specific proportion of the funding has to go to efforts outside of the US. Unfortunately, after being introduced to House committee last April and being sent back to the Senate from its committee last July, nothing has happened with this bill. You can send letters to your senators and representatives from the National Audubon Society website.
  • In the grocery store- If you are a coffee drinker, consider buying shade-grown coffee. According to Greenberg et al. (1997), shade-grown coffee plantations, whether using natural forest or planted canopy, host a wide variety of birds and may act as refuges for omnivorous species, especially during the dry season.
  • In your backyard- Pay attention to the birds you see and then submit those observations to– this site uses data from volunteers all over the world to track what people are seeing and when. Analysis of this data (Hurlbert & Liang 2012) found that short-distance migrants were responding more to increases in spring temperatures than long-distance migrants. What you see outside your window is important. (For those of you who aren’t too sure about your bird ID skills, check out– you can narrow your options by bird silhouette and then look at pictures- that’s how I learned that I had seen a white-winged crossbill.)
  • In your backyard- Consider putting out feeders to help migrants along their way. The University of Southern Mississippi Migratory Bird Research Group is committed to a better understanding of the behavior and ecology of migrating birds (their radar images of migrating flocks are pretty neat!). Moore et al. (2005) found that migrating birds spend more time at stopover sites than in flight during migration, so the resources birds find on the ground are crucial. Depending on where you are, you may want to consider hummingbird feeders or platforms with seeds or blocks of suet (and, of course, you want to think about what other animals might be interested in that food- where I live, there is a fine line between helping spring migrants and feeding black bears).
  • In your backyard- Consider providing additional nesting sites for song birds- the North American Bluebird Society and Purple Martin Conservation Associationhave tips and plans.

    Endangered Kirtland’s Warbler (Dendroica kirtlandii)- the population has responded positively to habitat management

  • Further afield- get involved with organizations that are targeting specific species- The Golden-winged Warbler Atlas Project is collecting data on habitat characteristics and population density across southern Canada and the northern US from Minnesota to New York, the Bobolink Project is active in the northeast, and many other groups across the continent and around the world are working to protect migrating songbirds.


Migrating songbirds represent a conservation challenge because their lives and needs span such a large geographical and ecosystem range. It will take the combined efforts of many people to ensure that needed habitats and stable populations persist into the future, but I truly believe that migratory bird conservation can work because there are so many ways for people to get involved. We only get to see certain birds for part of the year, so let’s work together to make sure that they return each time.


Works cited:

Greenberg, R., P. Bichier, and J. Sterling. 1997. Bird populations in rustic and planted shade coffee plantations of eastern Chiapas, Mexico. Biotropica 29(4): 501-514.

Hurlbert, A.H. and Z. Liang. 2012. Spatiotemporal variation in avian migration phenology: citizen science reveals the effects of climate change. PloS ONE 7(2): e31662.

Moore, F.R., M.S. Woodrey, J.J. Buler, S. Woltmann, and T.R. Simons. 2005. Understanding the stopover of migratory birds: a scale dependent approach. USDA Forest Service Gen. Tech. Rep. PSW-GTR-191.

Posted August 25, 2012 by Mirka Zapletal in Birds

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