Saving Migratory Birds

"Bird migration is probably the most unifying natural phenomena in the world - bringing together the natural history and conservation issues of states, countries and continents." 

James Cole, Ohio bird conservation manager

Released in early 2009, the first-ever U.S. State of the Birds report reveals what conservationists long have feared – across the nation bird species are on the decline. 

In what many scientists say can be hailed as a warning signal of environmental health, decreasing bird populations have triggered a sense of urgency in conservationists around the world. 

To help protect Ohio’s winged migrants, The Nature Conservancy recently hired James Cole as its Lake Erie coastal conservation director. 

Cole answers questions about the state of birds in Ohio, and what can be done to ensure their survival. What about Ohio's landscape makes it so important for migratory birds?

James Cole: Ohio’s varied landscape, with ecosystems like the Appalachian forests in the south to oak savanna and prairie in the northwest, attracts many bird species.  But the most significant feature for migratory birds is Lake Erie.  Large numbers of waterfowl and water birds visit Lake Erie each migration, and the western basin is situated almost perfectly for a shorebird migration corridor that runs between species’ wintering grounds in the southern Atlantic states to their breeding grounds in the U.S. and Canada.  Lake Erie also serves as a funnel for hawks and as a focal point for seasonal songbird migration. Migratory bird populations are on the decline.  Why do you think this is?

James Cole: The perils that migratory birds face are numerous, and some are hard to fully research and comprehend.  But biologists have reached the consensus that habitat loss and degradation represent the biggest threats.  Historically, Ohio has lost much of its natural land cover – vast forests, wetlands, and prairies have been converted for a multitude of human uses – and with the loss of intact ecosystems, bird populations have consequently declined.  The effects of habitat loss along Lake Erie can be particularly incisive for migratory birds.  The lake presents an obstacle for northbound and southbound birds, and migrants concentrate within the near-shore habitats to renew their energy stores in order to continue their long-distance journeys.  As the sites that provide vital fuel and cover continue to diminish, so do the birds. Why are birds an important part of our natural systems?

James Cole: I think most people have already heard the ‘canary in a coal mine’ analogy, that is, bird populations can be used as an indicator of environmental and human health.  Even though all of us weren’t around in the early 1970s, I’m sure many will recognize what the catastrophic fall of Brown Pelican, Osprey, and Bald Eagle populations taught us about pesticide use.  The fact is, bird migration is probably the most unifying natural phenomena in the world- bringing together the natural history and conservation issues of states, countries and continents.  In addition to being an “indicator species,” migratory birds play an important role in seed dispersal and pollination. What can Ohioans do to protect bird populations?  

James Cole: Simply put, migratory birds need food-rich stopover sites with adequate shelter so Ohioans can practice ‘bird-friendly’ landscaping in their yards and at their businesses.  Planting native trees and shrubs in spaces that currently are open lawns can eventually help attract and support birds during migration.  In spring a wide variety of oak species, elms, willows, and ashes are favored by migratory birds foraging for insect prey.  During southbound migration in late summer and fall, berry-producing shrubs and vines, like dogwoods and Virginia creeper, are helpful for many songbirds. What special role does the Conservancy play in migratory bird protection?  

James Cole: The Nature Conservancy is a world leader in conservation design and planning, and has a host of partners with whom we can work to implement our strategies.  As an example, we’re currently completing a computer-based study of migratory bird habitats along the Great Lakes’ shorelines, which will rank lands according to their importance for land birds, shorebirds, and waterfowl.  We’ll be able to evaluate which sites are protected or unprotected, and which habitats are most suitable for restoration.  This model will then allow us to work with our federal, state, and corporate partners in conserving lands that are a priority for migratory bird populations. 

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