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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 remaining forests and other more open habitats of tropical America during the winter. There, they feed on a bountiful variety of tropical insects and the forests’ fruits—mango, guava and papaya.

Have you ever wondered why Missouri’s Baltimore orioles love grape jelly so much? It’s because they’ve been eating the soft, sweet, fruity-fruits of the tropics all winter. While on their overwintering grounds, you might see 20 orioles in one tree, a flock of 100 Tennessee warblers foraging along the forest edge, or hundreds of scissor-tailed flycatchers leaving their night roost to spend the day foraging for insects in the countryside.

But these living gems are treasures in the midst of a complex world. Latin America’s abundance of natural riches is in direct contrast with the poverty of the people who live off the land, raising most of their own food. Central America has been changing from independent farming to large-scale agriculture and non-sustainable timber harvesting. The population of Latin America and the Caribbean during the next 40 years will increase by 100 to 350 million people, putting added pressure on an already stressed land.

Coffee that was once planted in the shade of the rain forest canopy can now be grown in full sun, thus allowing the clearing of the overstory forest. Pineapple, oil palms and organic banana fields are popping up in lowland areas to supply burgeoning world demand. These changes weigh heavily on the survival of birds and other species in one of the most biologically rich regions of the world. Losing just 1 acre of tropical habitat for wintering migrants is equal to losing 8 acres of North American nesting habitat.

Forming alliances

Since 2007 I have worked with Brad Jacobs and Audubon chapter leaders creating the Avian Conservation Alliance of the Americas, also known as Alianza para la Conservación de Aves de las Américas. ACAA, a citizen conservation alliance, is a partnership dedicated to protecting land in Central America.

Pico Bonito National Park and the Honduran Emerald Reserve in Honduras are areas ACAA currently supports. Pico Bonito is the second largest national park in Honduras, approximately the same size of my hometown, Kansas City. These areas are home to many of Missouri’s migratory birds and are critical for their winter survivorship.

Without a healthy environment to live in for eight months, the birds will not be fit enough to return early to their northern nesting sites, or healthy enough to raise their young. Good fitness levels have a positive affect on survival and reproductive success.

In ACAA’s first year, Audubon chapters raised more than $18,000. Through our state and national match grant system, ACAA raised more than $162,000. Our work is primarily focused on land acquisition and habitat restoration, but we also help with capacity building, skill-training, education, eco-tourism development, research and monitoring. Our first year’s fundraising efforts will be used to help with land purchases bordering Pico Bonito National Park and the Honduran Emerald Reserve, which is located in the buffer zone that surrounds the park. Some of this area has been seriously degraded and will require replanting of native tree species from a nursery established by our Honduran partners.

ACAA will be instrumental in helping Honduran conservationists establish a national-level workshop in Honduras for designating Important Bird Areas. Important Bird Areas identify areas vital to birds. Honduras is the last country in Central America to begin the IBA process. IBAs will help the people of Honduras focus their conservation efforts on the most important habitats for birds. Honduras has the highest percentage of natural forest habitat remaining in pristine condition, with about 46 percent of the predevelopment habitat left in Honduras.

ACAA also is creating a link between nature centers in Missouri and nature education centers in Honduras. This summer we hope to bring a naturalist from Honduras to attend a Conservation Department workshop, bringing our international partnership together. This collaboration will help foster an exchange between personnel and eventually technology for the children who live within the community of Pico Bonito.

ACAA is based on a leveraging concept of matching funds. Audubon chapters raise funds that are contributed to the Missouri Conservation Heritage Foundation. Funds are matched four times by partner agencies, nongovernmental agencies and foundations to further leverage. Once the funding targets are met in Missouri, they are transferred to national partners who double the funds through donations or a grant proposal to the Neotropical Migratory Bird Conservation Act. Ultimately an eightfold increase in funds will reach Pico Bonito National Park in Honduras. Or simply put, every $10 contributed to ACAA will become $80. Because of our system, the opportunity to make a difference is substantial.

Our long-term vision is to work within the Meso-American Biological Corridor, which is a 30-year landscape design effort underway throughout Central America. This forward-thinking plan is currently identifying important areas for wildlife and protecting those areas by creating a connected contiguous green beltway of protected areas from Northern Mexico to Panama. By preventing habitat and landscape fragmentation, plants and all wildlife will be able to reproduce and roam naturally without being trapped in small pocket parks or losing habitat altogether.

As bird-lovers, nature enthusiasts, scientists, and watchers of backyard bird feeders, we need to help the local people in Latin America, who also love birds, to protect their national natural treasures and ensure Missouri’s songbirds thrive.

It has been my privilege spending the past year in my role as chairwoman of ACAA, working with the Department and Audubon chapters to develop an organization that can be a voice for bird conservation, but our work has just begun. The futures of many species of birds found in North America are in jeopardy. Our mission is to protect the tropical habitat where our birds spend the winter and become a force to reverse the decline of our Neotropical migratory birds. Our hope is to keep the birds we love so much coming back to our Missouri backyards.

Headed South

Habitat loss on breeding and wintering grounds is the overarching reason for bird population declines.

Species Population Location
Painted Bunting 9 million to 4.5 million (50% decline) Overwinters in Mexico, Central America and West Carribean
Grasshopper Sparrow 68,000,000 to 15,000,000 (78% decline) Overwinters in Mexico and Central America
Wood Thrush 28 million to 14 million (50% decline) Overwinters in Central America
Chimney Swift 27 million to 15 million (44% decline) Overwinters in Peru
Cerulean Warbler 710,000 to 560,000 (25% decline) Overwinters in Andes

Information obtained from 40 years of data from the North American Breeding Bird Survey Web site .

Start small, think BIG:

Everyone can help to reverse the decline of our migratory birds.

  • Use decals or sun catchers on windows. 100 million to one billion birds are killed each year in collisions with window glass. Bird strikes on windows is the number one man-made killer of birds. Read Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s article Make Your Windows Safer for Birds onlinr for more ideas.
  • Keep cats indoors. Cats kill an estimated 500 million birds each year. Check out the The American Bird Conservancy’s Cats Indoors! campaign at for more information and tips on how to “Make your outdoor cat a happy indoor cat.”
  • Make your backyard “bird-friendly.” Keep a pesticide-free habitat using native plants and provide birdseed and fresh water.
  • Celebrate International Migratory Bird Day in your area. While officially held the second Saturday of May each year, events and festivities often depend on location. For More information on IMBD, visit online or contact your local Audubon chapter.
  • Get out and go birding! Share your enthusiasm with the people you know and the businesses you patronize. Tell them the cool things you saw in their area and how important it is to protect habitat. Leave a birding calling card at the Bluebird Nut website.
  • Learn more about the Avian Conservation Alliance of the Americas online or by calling (573) 751-4115 ext. 3648. Contributions to the Missouri Tropical Bird Account are gratefully accepted through the Missouri Conservation Heritage Foundation at PO Box 366, Jefferson City, MO 65102-0366. Visit online or call (573) 634-2080 or (800) 227-1488 for more information.

Shade-Grown Coffee

A new variety of coffee plant has been developed that can grow in open sunlight instead of the shade of canopy trees that once were part of the natural forests. Shade-grown coffee grew in relative harmony with many bird species and produced some of the best tasting coffee in the world, especially that grown at higher elevations in the mountains. Sun-grown coffee eliminates the need for overstory trees, so many are being cut and sold for lumber, thus eliminating the habitat for most birds. For more information, visit the Rain Forest Alliance's Certified Coffee page or the Seattle Audubon Society’s Northwest Shade Coffee Campaign.

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