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Going South

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Published on: Apr. 2, 2009

Last revision: Dec. 13, 2010

I will never forget May 5, 2006. For birders, the first week in May is Peak Week. It’s when birds return from where they have spent the winter and the optimum time to see songbirds that have been absent for the past eight months. Brad Jacobs, Conservation Department ornithologist, made a presentation on Neotropical bird migration to our local Audubon chapter in Kansas City. His opening remarks were beyond belief

Brad told us that every year an estimated 11 billion birds, about 450 species, fly from the United States and Canada to the tropical habitats of Mexico, Central and South America, and the Caribbean. North America’s songbirds, raptors, and even some ducks, spend eight months in places like Honduras, Ecuador and Argentina. This means that, because “our” birds spend so much of their time elsewhere, no conservation measure can be effective without addressing the habitat quality in those other countries.

Many Neotropical birds have experienced extreme population declines since the ’60s, when the Breeding Bird Survey first started keeping track of population trends of all bird species. In many cases, present day songbird populations are now at half of their 1965 populations. For example, today there are an estimated 14 million wood thrushes in North America, while only 40 years ago there were 28 million.

I am a career teacher and have taught environmental science concepts. I’ve also been an Audubon member for more than 10 years. Yet Brad’s information was staggering to me. Our group formed an International Conservation Committee to address these issues, and I happily accepted the role of chairwoman.

Our shared treasure

Imagine billions of birds following a skyway highway, flying back and forth between the tropics and our backyards. From their overwintering grounds to their nesting sites, some will fly 1,500 miles, at 13,000 feet altitude, at night. Many make the straight shot over the Gulf of Mexico—a 20-hour, nonstop, 600-mile flight. In a 10-year life span, they will have flown 30,000 miles. That’s quite a feat when, in the case of the cerulean warbler, you weigh about 9.3 grams—or about 3-4 pennies. Some birds can lose up to 50 percent of their body weight in the flight across the Gulf of Mexico.

Picture our familiar, “local,” birds in the tropics, little jewels of flashing color among the branches of tropical trees and shrubs. Ruby-throated hummingbirds, rose-breasted grosbeaks, Baltimore orioles, indigo buntings, scissor-tailed flycatchers and Tennessee warblers—all find safe haven in the

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