Always Coming Home
To thrive, migratory birds must find favorable habitat throughout the year, throughout the Americas.
By Brett Dufur
High up in the rolling, mist-covered mountains of Honduras, a small flash of metallic green darts through the forest. The ruby-throated hummingbird is returning home.
Where is “home” to a migratory bird that racks up thousands of miles in its annual trek? In a way, hummingbirds are always coming home — to beneficial habitat throughout the Americas — seeking warm weather, food, and shelter in North America, and farther south into Central and South America.
Hummingbirds bring joy to birdwatchers throughout the Americas. Each of us eagerly awaits the diminutive birds’ yearly return to our flowers and bird feeders — whether in Missouri or in the heart of Honduras.
By April, the hummingbirds outside kitchen windows in Honduras have completed the 1,800-mile migration to Missouri and other Midwestern states. They will spend the spring and summer months feeding on sap, insects, nectar, and at the feeder outside your own kitchen window.
By mid-August, the southward migration of the ruby-throated hummingbird is underway, and by early October most will have left Missouri. Many birds we see all summer long also are heading south as fall approaches. The peak of fall warbler migration begins in mid-August and continues through mid-September. And bird migration, in general, is in full swing into September.
Where exactly do our birds go eight months of the year? And who is working to ensure our birds return? Thankfully, a large network of conservationists working throughout the Americas is fighting to keep the future bright for migratory birds.
Keeping Common Birds Common
For about 60 species of Missouri’s migratory birds racing against winter in the middle of a 3,000-mile migration, finding enough food and quality habitat in many different states and countries throughout the Americas becomes a matter of life and death. Many of North America’s songbirds, raptors, and ducks spend eight months in places like Honduras, Ecuador, and Argentina. Because our birds spend so much of
their time elsewhere, no conservation measure at home can be effective without addressing habitat conservation in those other countries.
Improving bird habitat throughout migratory flyways has never been more important. Many migratory birds have experienced population declines. In many instances, present-day bird populations are now less than half of their populations 50 years ago, with some bird groups showing declines as high as 90 percent. Land use changes and loss of habitat are the largest and most obvious obstacles that birds encounter on migration.
Fortunately, numerous bird conservation partnerships work to conserve important habitat both in Missouri and beyond. That, in concert with sound science and land management in Missouri, ensures that our birds return each spring and summer.
“Our goal is to keep common birds common,” says Department Ornithologist Brad Jacobs. “Many of these birds are showing steep declines, and some are truly in jeopardy. There is no magical way to help all birds by doing one thing in one place. For example, we’ve got 18 species of warblers that all go someplace different.”
Improving Local Habitat
If you’ve ever been on a long road trip, you know how nerve-racking it can be to run out of gas. Now imagine you’re a bird, like a bobolink that finished raising its young in Harrison County and is now beginning a 6,000-mile southward migration. On that long journey from Harrison County to Argentina, South America, finding adequate food to fuel your flight is paramount to survival. Fortunately, the habitat improvements made for quail, turkey, and other resident wildlife in Missouri have the added benefit of helping migratory birds that are beginning, or are in the middle of, their yearly trek.
“As you improve habitat on your land for quail, turkey, or deer, remember that you’re also providing much needed fuel and shelter for migratory birds,” says Clint Dalbom, Department agriculture liaison. “For example, creating nesting and brood-rearing habitat for quail also benefits a suite of migratory grassland birds, including bobolinks. Every August, you can watch these birds gather in flocks as they prepare to leave their nesting grounds in northern Missouri to winter in balmy Brazil and Argentina, a round trip of approximately 12,000 miles.”
Last year, the Department made more than 5,500 on-site visits with landowners and homeowners to assist with grassland and woodland management, and improvements to stream banks and riparian corridors.
“The benefits of planting native warm-season grass, edge feathering fields, or improving your woodlands by thinning them out can provide ideal nesting cover for many migrant birds, as well as a host of other species, like quail and wild turkeys,” Dalbom says. “When we manage for short, shrubby grassland habitat, we benefit migrants such as prairie warblers, field sparrows, and blue-winged warblers, as well as some of our favorite permanent residents like rabbits, quail, turkeys, and deer.”
Restoring Missouri’s Best Habitats
The Conservation Department actively manages habitat on thousands of acres throughout the state. “Many of the conservation areas where the Department is restoring bottomland forests along riverways, such as at Donaldson Point, Four Rivers, and Black Island, benefit migratory birds, not to mention all of the other wetlands the Department manages for many migratory birds and waterfowl,” says Mike Leahy, the Department’s natural areas coordinator.
“Also, our bigger conservation areas, such as Sunklands, Angeline, and Peck Ranch provide extensive areas where many songbirds come to breed each summer,” Leahy says.
The Conservation Department works with Missourians to conserve Missouri’s best remaining examples of a wide variety of habitats, such as wetlands, glades, prairies, and forests, which all meet specific habitat needs for a variety of migratory birds. Not only are they important for wildlife, they are also great places for Missourians to get out and birdwatch.
Learning More About Our Birds
Deep in Missouri’s Ozark forests, researcher Paul Porneluzi studies songbirds that migrate to Missouri’s forests to breed and raise their young, as well as those that use Missouri’s forests as stopover habitat on their way to somewhere else.
“Missouri’s Ozarks are home to an incredible diversity of birds that come here to nest. Ovenbirds, Acadian flycatchers, yellow-breasted chats, hooded warblers, white-eyed vireos, prairie warblers, the list goes on and on,” says Porneluzi, a Central Methodist University biology professor and a lead researcher for the Missouri Ozark Forest Ecosystem Project’s (MOFEP) neotropical migrant bird study, funded by the Conservation Department.
Porneluzi’s studies show that active management of Missouri’s forests can benefit more bird species. “Many of these birds require mature forest and some of them require the dense, shrubby habitat that grows in the openings after a timber harvest. After about seven years, those young trees are too tall for shrub-nesting birds, so the trick is to find the right balance for sustainable timber harvest. If you just have mature forest and don’t harvest, you don’t have a lot of these birds.”
MOFEP is the longest running study of its kind in the nation, using the Ozark forests as a research lab to better understand how a wide variety of fish and wildlife respond to different tree harvest and forest management techniques. For more information on this project, visit mofep.mdc.mo.gov.
A Leader in National and International Bird Conservation Efforts
By being engaged in continental-scale bird conservation, the Conservation Department’s research and science — honed in the wetlands, forests, riverways, prairies, and farms of Missouri — assists with conservation efforts throughout the Western Hemisphere.
“Missouri is certainly a leader among states in studying the needs of migratory birds and planning and implementing conservation for them,” says Frank Thompson, a U.S. Forest Service research scientist and University of Missouri professor. Thompson collaborates with MOFEP investigators on research that supports bird conservation.
“The Conservation Department is a valuable partner in both contributing to basic avian research and actively engaging both with national and international bird conservation partners. Not many other states support wildlife research or conservation activities outside their borders to the degree that Missouri does,” Thompson says.
This work is important because bird populations don’t exist solely in Missouri, they are part of a regional population. “Keeping them here in healthy numbers depends on what’s going on around us,” Thompson says. “Many of these birds face two challenges. One is breeding habitat loss and fragmentation in the United States, which requires regional approaches to conservation. Another big threat is what’s affecting their overwinter survival, such as converting needed habitat to agriculture, habitat fragmentation, and growing human populations. These birds face great hazards in both southern and northern migration, and we need to promote conservation on their wintering grounds and migratory routes.”
Keeping Our Birds Coming Home
The Conservation Department works with Missourians to help provide migratory birds with good habitat and a better chance for survival. An estimated 1.6 million Missourians and nonresidents spend an estimated 181.2 million days birdwatching in Missouri. They observe about 335 bird species every year in the state, 170 of which raise their young here. More than 80 of those species leave the state during the non-breeding season, including 54 that leave the United States, spending eight months in Mexico, Central and South America, and the Caribbean, returning each spring to nest throughout Missouri.
By being good stewards of our birds and their habitats in Missouri, it benefits us all. Each of Missouri’s migratory bird species links us to our southern neighbors who enjoy and care for these birds for much of the year, as well. We are all connected as distant neighbors. Perhaps some day, you can visit our birds on their wintering range in Honduras, or even Argentina, and thank those conservation-minded distant neighbors who also are working to keep them coming back home.
Partnerships Embrace Continental-Scale Bird Conservation
Partnerships beyond Missouri borders allow Conservation Department staff to contribute to science and management efforts with bird conservationists throughout the vast ranges of many migratory birds.
“One of the fun things about bird conservation is knowing that people love birds in their backyards as well as in remote wildernesses,” says Conservation Department Ornithologist Brad Jacobs. “Hondurans, Missourians, Canadians, and other people throughout the Americas share that same love, but just express it in different languages.”
Conservationists from throughout the Americas work together through the North American Bird Conservation Initiative (NABCI). Guided by sound science and effective management, NABCI’s goal is for populations and habitats of North America’s birds to be protected, restored, and enhanced through coordinated efforts at international, national, regional, state, and local levels.
In Missouri, the state-scale equivalent is the Missouri Bird Conservation Initiative (MoBCI), a coalition of more than 60 organizations and agencies that work to conserve birds and their habitats in Missouri.
“By working together, we aim to deliver the full spectrum of bird conservation through regionally based, biologically driven, landscape oriented partnerships. ‘All bird conservation,’ as opposed to single species management, is fast becoming the norm in many states,” says Jacobs.
Conservation-minded bird watchers, hunters, business owners, academicians, state and federal professionals, and citizens are all committed to working together to sustain healthy habitats for the benefit of resident and migrant birds in Missouri and for the enjoyment and economic benefits of Missouri citizens. In the past 10 years, MoBCI has directed more than $3 million to bird conservation projects in Missouri. Partners have contributed more than $1.2 million in matching funds.
“This investment has made thousands of acres of bird habitat work possible on public and private lands throughout Missouri,” says retired Wildlife Diversity Chief Gene Gardner. “Partnerships help coordinate and direct the efforts of the Conservation Department more effectively to help ensure that Missouri has healthy, sustainable bird populations and habitats for future generations to enjoy.”
Bird groups that benefit from MoBCI conservation efforts include neotropical migrants, songbirds, shorebirds, waterfowl and other waterbirds, and resident birds such as bobwhite quail, greater prairie chickens, and ruffed grouse.
In addition, many of the partner organizations, including Department staff, work with bird conservationists not just in Missouri, but throughout the full seasonal cycle of some bird species’ vast breeding and wintering ranges. Missouri partnership connections across landscapes, state boundaries, and continents benefit birds throughout the year.
MoBCI partners, the Conservation Department, and the Missouri Conservation Heritage Foundation help to protect Missouri birds year-round, such as the northern pintails in Canada and cerulean warblers in Guatemala, through habitat enhancement projects. Together, they protect and conserve important migrant bird wintering habitat in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, mountain forest on Guatemala’s Caribbean slope, and breeding habitat in the pothole lakes of Canada.
“Donations to the Foundation’s Missouri Tropical Bird Fund support conservation activities in the region between eastern Mexico and Panama, where 95 percent of Missouri’s breeding bird species migrate to overwinter,” Jacobs says.
The Foundation is a partner of the Avian Conservation Alliance, which includes seven National Audubon Society chapters, the Department, and other national and international partners, including the American Bird Conservancy, The Nature Conservancy, U.S. Agency for International Development, and individual Central American and Mexican governmental agencies and nongovernmental organizations that promote conservation and environmental education.
Two projects focus on habitat protection of 7,000 acres of forests in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula near Cancun and in the state of Izabal, Guatemala. The Department and the Foundation also support staff training, capacity building, education, public outreach, publications, and ecotourism in and around critical conservation lands in Mexico and throughout Central and South America.
The Foundation also is helping to fund the first comprehensive book on the birds of Honduras, which will be published in English and Spanish. This resource will encourage conservation and ecotourism in that country — both to the benefit of Missouri migrants.
Learn more at mobci.org and mochf.org.