white-tailed eagle white-tailed eagle Migratory birds, such as this white-tailed eagle, are increasingly under pressures from threats such as cats, habitat loss, and light pollution. (Photo: Ondrej Prosicky /Shutterstock)

5 reasons you should care about migratory birds

From habitat loss to opportunistic cats, migratory birds face a variety of growing threats during their annual journeys across the globe.

Twice a year, around the globe, hundreds of millions of birds travel thousands of miles between breeding and wintering grounds. It's a dazzling and impressive phenomenon with few equals in the animal kingdom. Unfortunately, like many other aspects of nature, these great migrations are under pressures from a variety of threats. Below are five critical forces conservationists around the world are working to mitigate to preserve these great migrations for generations to come.

1. Habitat loss

tree swallowUnlike swans or geese, tree swallows depend on traditional stopover sites during their annual migrations. Disruptions to these habitats can be detrimental. (Photo: Tom Reichner/Shutterstock)

Flying for thousands of miles, millions of migratory birds from North America to the Mediterranean depend on stopover sites to feed, rest, and refuel on their journeys. Unfortunately, these critical habitats are under increasing pressures from human development, with many marshes, forests, and fields worldwide being drained and cleared for other purposes. While some migratory birds (such as geese, ducks, and swans) are flexible with their stopover sites, others depend upon them exclusively. Recognizing and protecting these habitats from future development is an absolute priority for saving certain species from exhaustion and decline.


2. Climate change

steppe eagleA steppe eagle, a common sight during the world's great raptor migration in the skies above Israel. (Photo: Ondrej Prosicky/Shutterstock)

Warmer temperatures as a result of climate change are causing some bird species to shift the timing of their migrations. This change, however minor, puts hundreds of species at risk of missing overlaps with critical food sources such as migratory fish and ripened fruits and nuts. Sea level rise is also threatening to wipe out vital coastal wetlands and beach habitats. At the Second German-Israeli Climate Talks at Tel Aviv University this week, ornithologists and scientists gathered to discuss and confront these issues; in particular focusing on the threats facing the world's largest raptor migration.


3. Cats

blue birdsMigratory songbirds, such as these blue birds, are frequent prey for domestic cats. (Photo: Jesse Nguyen/Shutterstock)

Despite near-ubiquitous love on the Internet, cats receive no such praise from birds. A 2012 study published in the journal Nature estimated that in the United States alone, free-range domestic cats are responsible for between 1.3–4.0 billion bird deaths. Migratory songbirds, such as swallows, blue birds, robins, and sparrows are particularly at risk; with cats stalking vulnerable fledglings, birds roosting at night, and birds on nests. The best solution for a bird-attacking cat? Keep it inside or, as the American Audubon Society recommends, have it wear a specialized collar designed to give birds a heads up that danger is lurking.


4. Pesticides

bobolinkThe bobolink, a migratory songbird with wintering grounds in Latin America, has declined by 50 percent since 1966. (Photo: Paul Reeves Photography/Shutterstock)

Pest-control chemicals such as rat poison, weed killer, and insecticides can easily kill owls, eagles, and songbirds. A 2013 study by the American Bird Conservancy found that a single seed covered in the world's most widely-used insecticide can fatally poison a bird. Migratory species with wintering grounds in Latin America are particularly vulnerable, due to the heavy use of toxic pesticides used on crops from coffee to bananas. Want to help? Buy organic crops from the tropics, as these are grown using methods that are harmless to birds and other species.


5. Light pollution

thrush Birds, such as the tiger thrush, can become disoriented by artificial lights during migrations. (Photo: Lungnhuadsamui/Shutterstock)

Artificial lights that increasingly dominate our night skies are also having an adverse effect on migratory birds. Common issues include disorientation, exhaustion, and accidental flights into tall buildings or towers. A 2008 study published in Ecology and Society found that the magnetic compass birds use to navigate is disrupted by artificial light; with overcast nights in particular inflicting the most confusion. In response, cities like New York and Chicago have started turning off the lights of tall buildings during peak migration nights. "This is a simple step to help protect these migrating birds that make their home in New York's forests, lakes and rivers," New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said in a statement.

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