One of the smallest birds in North America faces two enormous challenges each year. The ruby-throated hummingbird – the same bird spotted in backyards in Arkansas – breeds and nests as far north as Canada and winters as far south as Panama, meaning this tiny bird flies up to 3,500 miles, including 500-miles non-stop across the Gulf of Mexico, twice annually.
The ruby-throated hummingbird is among more than 300 migratory bird species in North America that make similar treks. Some of the most prized sightings for birdwatchers in Arkansas include rose-breasted grosbeaks, painted buntings, indigo buntings, Wilson’s warblers, Prothonotary warblers and swallow-tailed kites. The most popular species among waterfowl hunters is perhaps the mallard duck; much to the hunters’ delight, Arkansas is home to the largest wintering population of mallards in the world.
Arkansas hosts many migratory birds because of two factors. The first is geography. The Mississippi Flyway migration route, which follows the Mississippi River much of the way and covers most of Arkansas, is a major interstate for birds moving north and south. Beyond the river, the flyway extends north to the Arctic coast of Alaska and south to the Patagonia region of southern Argentina. On a map of the United States, the Mississippi Flyway looks like a giant funnel that narrows at Arkansas.
The second factor is habitat. Arkansas has abundant cover and food for birds traveling the flyway. At 550,000 acres, the Big Woods that line the White and Cache river basins in Arkansas are the second-largest contiguous block of forest remaining in the Mississippi River Delta. (The largest block is in Louisiana’s Atchafalaya River basin.) Prime bird habitat covers much of Arkansas outside the Big Woods as well.
Not all places along the flyway have as much conserved natural land and water as Arkansas. Primarily because of habitat destruction and fragmentation, a number of migratory bird species have been declining over the past 30 years. It’s a problem that can’t be corrected in one place alone; the quantity and quality of natural habitat in Canada, the central U.S. and many Central and South American countries affect migratory bird populations in Arkansas.
Until recent years, conservation efforts aimed at helping migratory birds have focused on breeding and wintering grounds. While these areas are critical to the birds’ survival, more emphasis is now being placed on the conservation of “stopover sites,” particularly for forest-dwelling migratory birds. Within a flyway, a network of protected stopover sites, which can range from small city parks to vast national forests, provides places where migrating birds can rest and find food and water during their journey.
Researchers who have studied stopover sites recognize that smaller sites can be extremely valuable because frequently they are the only suitable habitat left in an area. Smaller sites need attention because relatively few remain, they are least likely to be identified and managed with conservation practices in mind, and they are being destroyed or degraded rapidly. Large blocks, like national wildlife refuges, researchers say, are either under conservation ownership or targeted for conservation action.
If we could interpret the songs of migratory birds, we might find them singing the praises of Arkansans for our conservation efforts. The Natural State has some 2.9 million acres in its national forests, more than 120 state-owned wildlife management areas and natural areas, 52 state parks, and dozens of nature preserves. Many Arkansas cities, including the state’s capital, are graced by parks that wake up each day to the songs of birds. And yes, even the mallards would probably express gratitude; revenue from federal duck stamps purchased by hunters has funded the acquisition of most of the acres within the 10 national wildlife refuges in Arkansas.