You are here: NRS Home / Featured Research / Bird Migration

Bird Migration

April 2014

It was a long, hard winter in the Northeast and Midwest, and one that continues to linger.  Spring could not come soon enough for most of us, but with each passing day, subtle hints of spring appear.  Some of the most welcome signs are the sound and sight of songbirds returning from their overwintering grounds in the tropics.  These tiny birds have an amazing migration, traveling thousands of miles between overwintering and breeding habitats mostly at night, when they navigate by stars.  The Northern Research Station has a talented cadre of wildlife biologists devoted to understanding these animals and doing research that informs habitat conservation efforts.  This month we feature a scientist, research, a product and partnership all related to bird migration.  

Environmental Education Links

Celebrate International Migratory Bird Day on May 10, 2014, or any day of the year, with these resources:

Featured Scientist

Frank Thompson

Frank Thompson

Frank Thompson is a research wildlife biologist at NRS with a passion for conservation of songbirds and other wildlife.  He is particularly interested in how changes across the landscape, such as fragmentation, land cover change, and climate change, affect the sustainability of wildlife populations.  One aspect of Thompson’s research is to develop landscape scale models that assist land managers and planners in planning wildlife conservation across large spatial scales.

Modeling biological processes across landscape scales is challenging.  The variables are often complex and not completely understood, assumptions in the models may be imprecise, and the empirical data needed to validate these models may not exist.  To ensure that models are reliable, scientists conduct field studies to fill knowledge gaps and give them an in-depth understanding of the ecological processes.   While developing models is challenging, the promise of contributing to wildlife conservation efforts, and especially migratory birds, inspires Thompson to continue striving to build a better model.    

Find out more on Frank Thompson's biography page >>

Featured Product

Post-fledging Survival of Passerine Birds

Researcher radio-tracked juvenile songbirds for several weeks after the left the nest, such as this Acadian flycatcher, to determine survival and habitat use.The period of time between when young songbirds leave the nest and when they disperse for breeding grounds is a period fraught with many challenges to survival.  It is also notoriously difficult for scientists to assess young birds’ survival rates during this period.  In a recent publication in the Journal of Wildlife Management, researchers reviewed the literature on post-fledging survival of songbirds and synthesized the current state of knowledge.   Two of the authors of this review, NRS scientist Frank Thompson and University of Missouri Professor John Faaborg, were pioneers in this line of research beginning in the 1990s. 

One of the findings that emerged from the review of literature was that the highest mortality occurs in the first 3 weeks after birds leave the nest.  In addition, greater body weight and duration of time in the nest increased survival.  Nearly two-thirds of the studies examined indicated at least one habitat factor affecting survival, and 35 percent detected weather or climate effects.  The authors also demonstrated that populations can be very sensitive to post-fledging survival, which may provide insight into why at least some bird populations in the U.S are declining.  Understanding factors affecting post-fledging survival can help managers improve conditions during the most dangerous period of a young bird’s life. 

More information >>

Featured Research

Bird Responses to Habitat Disturbance

Richard Chandler, former Ph.D student, holds a golden-winged warbler, a high priority Neotropical migrant bird that uses IOC farms but not shade coffee, as former USFS International Programs Migratory Bird Program Head Carol Lively looks on.Studying birds in the context of their habitats can provide great insights into how human activities are impacting natural systems.  NRS research wildlife biologist Dave King has devoted his career to studying bird responses to habitat disturbance, including the effect of habitat destruction and degradation on wintering neotropical migrant birds. Neotropical migrants comprise the majority of species breeding in northern forests, yet spend the majority of their annual cycle wintering in the tropics. Effective conservation of these species requires a "full life-cycle" approach that includes consideration of winter habitat needs.

Understanding how wintering avian migrants can be accommodated on managed lands, while still satisfying the economic needs and aspirations of human populations, is critical to successfully conserving many species of Neotropical birds. One approach for accomplishing this is to retain elements of natural habitat in agricultural areas, for example, retaining trees used by birds in shade coffee plantations. This is termed "land sharing" conservation and it contrasts with "land sparing" systems that maximize crop yields in cultivated areas so farmers can afford to spare other lands for conservation.  In a recent research article, King and colleagues compare land sharing and land sparing coffee farming strategies for conserving forest birds in Costa Rica.  Results of this study showed species diversity and richness of forest-dependent birds, including several Neotropical migrants that have been identified as being high priority species, were more effectively conserved using the land sparing approach.

More Information >>

Featured Partnership

Wings Across the Americas

Demonstrating methods of bird conservation for collaborators on coffee plantations in Honduras.

“Wings across the Americas” is a U.S. Forest Service program that works with a wide range of partners in the United States and abroad to conserve habitats and populations of birds, bats, butterflies and dragonflies.  The program relies on partnerships among four branches of the Forest Service (Research and Development, the National Forest System, State and Private Forestry and International Programs) as well as other public and private organizations and entities, to carry out its mission. 

In its efforts on bird conservation, “Wings across the Americas” activities include helping to conduct assessments of bird conservation needs; assisting in research, management, and monitoring for bird habitat protection; and training biologists and land managers in bird conservation.  With loss of habitat and forest fragmentation increasing, and some bird populations declining, the conservation efforts of the partnership are particularly important.  Each year the “Wings across the Americas” program recognizes outstanding contributions to bird conservation in five different categories.  Recent award recipients include NRS research wildlife biologists Dave King and Frank Thompson, and research biologist Todd Katzner of West Virginia University and NRS.    

More Information >>