Since the beginning of time, migratory birds have fascinated and inspired humans. They represented the renewal of life in ancient Greece, and in the Bible, they are symbols of peace and hope. To Native Americans, migratory birds symbolize concepts of unity, freedom, safe return, love, and the celebration of life. Today in almost all cultures, the flight of birds is connected to the ideas of lightness, freedom, harmony, and the arrival of spring.
Not only have these migratory birds represented a variety of symbols, but they have also been seen as holding monetary value. Fortunately, these birds have been protected from over-exploitation by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, enacted in 1916, a United States federal law, making the acts of possessing, transporting, selling, purchasing, importing, and exporting any migratory bird (or its components) illegal for any person who does not possess a valid permit in accordance with federal regulations. This act was created for the purpose of protecting and sustaining the populations of the numerous endemic migratory bird species. Unfortunately, while positive in theory, this act does not address the major causes of these birds’ decline today, which include industrialization, urban development, commercial agriculture, air pollution, fires, and other issues affecting habitat.
Neotropical bird migrants head to the United States during summer and travel back to Central and Southern America for several months during winter. The lush riparian zones of the Great Basin provide insulated, protected habitats, essential for avian breeding and rearing, while native trees and insects of the Central and South American forests support the birds through the winter months. Where a bird meets its need for food, shelter, and reproduction, known as its ecological niche, is vital for survival. The major factors that have contributed to the decline of migrant bird species are present in both North America and Central and South America. In the United States, birds face problems with the degradation and loss of native riparian habitats from urban and commercial development, water diversion and invasive species. Not only do these species deal with hardships during the summer season, but when returning south, they are faced with even more habitat destruction, stemming from unsustainable agricultural practices.
The social aspect of how humans have viewed birds coincides with the significance of their role in the functioning of an ecosystem. Migrants fly over long distances, crossing many international borders, political areas all with their own different legislation on environmental issues and conservation actions. Because of this, cooperation between governments, non-governmental organizations, and other collaborators is essential to coordinate well-established conservation efforts. We need national and international coordinance to overcome the threats to migratory birds.
Paso Pacífico recognizes migrant bird habitat destruction as a highly significant issue and has made a commitment of 40 years for migratory bird research and conservation in the Paso del Istmo Biological Corridor. This project has included protecting/restoring bird habitat, establishing a long-term monitoring program, creating a migratory bird education program, and promoting sustainable tourism for birders. To reach these goals, Paso Pacífico has mapped habitat areas, characterized land cover, reforested, educated, and reached out to communities. In 2008, Paso Pacífico, along with other organizations, announced the Return to Forest project, aiming to restore about 1,000 acres of tropical forest in the most critically endangered ecosystems of Central America. Launched this year, Paso Pacífico’s Million Tree Campaign intends to raise $10 million by 2020 to plant one million native trees (over 20 native species) in Central America which will provide bird habitat and estimates to offset 250,000 tons of carbon dioxide.
Paso Pacífico is also working with the MoSI Program, which consists of an international network of bird monitoring stations reaching across the northern Neotropics that reinforces preservation efforts through collaborative population monitoring. The program focuses on Neotropical migrants that breed in the United States and Canada and resident birds in the host countries as well. Starting in 2002, MoSI has operated over 200 stations in 15 different countries to help answer questions regarding locations of the most pronounced species thinning, factors driving population decline, relationships between climate and population change, and methods of combating dwindling populations. MoSI works by using standardized protocol which entails a system of fine mesh nets to capture birds during their non-breeding season. MoSI operators band the birds and compile information on the birds’ age, sex, and body condition, and then release them back into the wild. By collecting information on the birds’ full annual cycles, knowledge about what drives and/or limits populations is attainable, as well as when and where to focus future conservation efforts. You can donate to our programs here.