Loss Of Habitat Greatest Threat To Migratory Birds

By Kathy Reshetiloff

  • MOST OF US associate the arrival of spring with robins. But did you know that more than 200 species of birds that nest in North America migrate to Mexico, Central America, South America and the Caribbean to overwinter?

    Birds do not migrate to avoid cold temperatures. Many birds can survive in harsh temperatures if they are able to find enough food. Birds that rely on food that is not available at certain times of the year must either change their diet or move to areas where they can find food.

    When cold temperatures cause insects to disappear, many insect-eating birds migrate. Each spring, these same birds fly back to breeding grounds in North America and the Arctic.

    Birds that feed on nectar, and even some seed-eating birds, also migrate in search of food. Some of these birds are common to us — the Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Baltimore Oriole, Gray Catbird, Purple Martin, Barn Swallow and Chimney Swift. Others, such as the Indigo Bunting, Scarlet Tanager, Bobolink and Cape May Warbler, may only be familiar to bird watchers.

    The importance of migratory birds cannot be overlooked. Birds control insects by eating tons of them every year. As leaves emerge each spring, so do millions of caterpillars and insects. Coinciding with this event, an array of birds, such as orioles, vireos, flycatchers, warblers and swallows, return to North America and feast upon the abundant insects. Birds protect our forests and crops from harmful insects. Seed-eating birds help to distribute seeds, and nectar-eating birds help to pollinate plants.

    With the arrival of migratory songbirds, shorebirds, waterfowl and raptors comes the emergence of the bird watcher. Bird watching is a leading recreational industry. Americans devote a great deal of time and money to enjoy the sights and sounds of their favorite birds. Expenditures related to bird feeding and bird watching exceeded $29 billion in 1996.

    Despite their importance, many migratory birds are declining. Causes include the loss of both breeding and wintering habitat, habitat fragmentation, decreasing sources of important food, pesticide poisonings and predation.

    In North America, the loss or fragmentation of habitat appears to be the major contributing factor. Although public lands like National Wildlife Refuges and National Parks are extremely important to migrating birds, this small amount of land cannot provide all the food and habitat birds need. Nationwide, 71 percent of the land is privately owned.

    In the eastern United States that figure is closer to 90 percent. To help maintain the glorious diversity of songbirds, shorebirds, raptors (owls, hawks, falcons and eagles) and waterfowl, private landowners need to provide habitat. All types of land can be managed to increase their value for wildlife while still maintaining their current use.

    So what can you do to help migratory birds?

    Restore habitat. Homeowners and landowners can restore, enhance or protect habitats beneficial to birds and other wildlife. State and federal wildlife agencies have many programs to assist landowners with habitat enhancement or restoration projects. By planting native vegetation, homeowners can provide badly needed food and cover. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s Partners for Fish & Wildlife program offers assistance to private landowners to restore wetlands and other habitats that benefit migratory birds, endangered or threatened species or anadromous (migratory) fish.

    For information, contact the Partners for Fish and Wildlife coordinator for your state:

    * Delaware: 302-653-9152;
    * District of Columbia: 703-358-2161;
    * Maryland: 410-573-4500;
    * Virginia: 804-693-6694;
    * Pennsylvania: 814-234-4090;
    * New York: 607-753-9334; and
    * West Virginia 304-636-6586.

    Homeowners can also receive information on how to “BayScape” their yard. BayScaping is a form of landscaping that provides habitat while reducing chemicals and conserving water. BayScapes are beneficial to people, wildlife and the Chesapeake Bay.

    For information, contact the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service at 410-573-4500 or access: www.fws.gov/r5cbfo. BayScapes information is also available from any Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay office: in Maryland, 410-377-6270; in Virginia, 804-775-0951 or in Pennsylvania, 717-236-8825.

    Drink shade-grown coffee. Wintering habitats in Central and South America are also being altered and are disappearing, in some cases, faster than breeding habitats. If you’re a coffee lover, consider buying shade-grown coffee. Coffee grown on clear-cut plantations destroys critical wintering habitat for migratory birds.

    For more information about shade-grown coffee, contact the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation at 202-857-0166 or the American Bird Conservancy at 888-BIRD-MAG.

    Keep cats indoors. There are at least 68 million pet cats in the United States. This number does not include stray or feral cats. Roaming cats kill birds. Studies have shown that birds make up 20–30 percent of cats’ prey. Cat owners can reduce the number of birds maimed and killed simply by keeping their cats indoors.

    This is also good for cats. Indoor cats are healthier and live longer than outdoor cats. Indoor cats contract less diseases and require fewer trips to the veterinarian, saving their owners money.

    Reduce or eliminate chemical usage. Despite the banning of toxic pesticides, like DDT, birds are still exposed to harmful pesticides in this country. Although pesticides are intended to control specific pests, they can also harm or kill non-target species. Forty active ingredients in pesticides have been linked to bird die-offs. Most of those known to be toxic to birds belong to one of three classes of chemicals: organochlorines, organophosphates and carbamates.

    To reduce the risk of harm to wildlife, use pesticides very carefully. First, determine whether you actually have a problem. If you must use a pesticide, choose one targeted specifically for your pest problem. If possible, use low- impact types of pesticides like dormant oils, insecticidal soaps or repellents free of organic solvents.

    Contact your local cooperative extension office for more information. –Bay Journal