Migration is an enormous undertaking for many bird species, involving extended travel over vast distances and unpredictable weather conditions. In order to learn more about how these birds survive, it’s important that scientists understand how the ecosystems they pass through are able to sustain their populations.
The Gulf of Mexico is a major stopping point for birds that migrate between North America and the Neotropics, as almost all migrants need to go around or across it. These birds rely on the coastal habitats of the Gulf of Mexico in order to continue on their journey. Unfortunately, these habitats are becoming increasingly threatened by human activity.
A recent study published in The Condor: Ornithological Applications reveals some new insight into the current state of this region’s ecosystems and the birds that pass through them. Emily Cohen of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and lead author of the study explains, “Our focus is the Gulf of Mexico region because it’s a bottleneck for migratory land birds – a place they have to move through every spring and fall.”
Migrating birds use a variety of these coastal habitats – which include large swaths of hardwood forests as well as small areas of vegetation found in agricultural or urban areas. But threats from forest clearing, wetland filling and dredging, tall structures such as cell phone towers and wind turbines, and climate change are decreasing these birds’ ability to complete a successful migration.
“Birds use these coastal habitats twice a year to eat and rest before and after their spectacular non-stop flight across the Gulf, which can take up to twenty hours!” says Cohen. Needless to say, a lack of food or a proper area to rest would be disastrous for anybody about to undertake a 20 hour flight – whether in a comfy jet or through flapping your own wings.
Currently, the Gulf of Mexico Avian Monitoring Network is undertaking the daunting task of coordinating monitoring across this region by combining the efforts of a many organizations and agencies. More data will be needed to get a clearer picture of the impact of habitat loss on migrating birds. This will also require close cooperation between the U.S., Mexico, and some Caribbean countries.
Erik Johnson of Audubon Louisiana and an expert on bird conservation in the region stressed the importance of this study: “As this paper makes clear, preserving this landscape is a tremendous responsibility shared across multiple countries, and our collective success has implications for how our descendants across North America will experience the amazing phenomenon of bird migration.”