Helping Migratory Birds at Home

Powerless to stop the oiling of bird habitat along the Gulf of Mexico, homeowners can provide havens for migrants in their own yards

  • Laura Tangley
  • Jun 17, 2010

BEYOND THE IMMEDIATE SHOCK of seeing hundreds of oil-soaked seabirds, one of biggest concerns about the BP spill—for biologists, conservationists and birders alike—is the degradation of critical stopover sites for migratory shorebirds, waterfowl and songbirds.

Particularly for birds that migrate across the Gulf of Mexico—a journey that can take 18 hours or more—the barrier islands and wetlands along the U.S. Gulf Coast provide critical areas for resting and refueling before continuing the journey north to summer breeding grounds or south to winter habitat in Latin America.

Over the past several decades, scientists have detected declines in the populations of many Neotropical migrants. Initially, the major culprits were thought to be destruction of tropical forests in the birds’ wintering grounds, combined with forest fragmentation in their summer habitat. Now researchers realize that the loss of stopover habitat may be at least as important, if not more so. Migratory birds spend as much as half the year traveling between their summer and winter ranges.

Create Habitat in Your Own Backyard

While most of us are powerless to stop the disaster unfolding in the Gulf, we can help migratory birds by providing stopover habitat in our own yards. For the past 37 years, the National Wildlife Federation’s Certified Wildlife Habitat™ program has been guiding homeowners, schools and, more recently, entire communities on how to make landscapes more hospitable to birds and other wildlife by offering appropriate food, water, shelter and places to rear young.

These backyard refuges are becoming increasingly critical. Biologist Mark Hostetler of the University of Florida, who studies how urban landscape design affects biodiversity, wrote in National Wildlife magazine that “urban environments are an important factor in the future conservation of many species. Not only has urban sprawl grown into the paths of stopover sites on bird flyways, but the sheer volume of human development has changed the amount of area available for nesting and overwintering.”

Even Small Habitats Make a Difference

In a study published in 2010 in the journal The Condor, scientists from Ohio State University compared how long migrating Swainson’s thrushes lingered in urban woodlots ranging from 1.7 acres to 93.9 acres. They found that the time birds spent in each patch did not vary significantly depending on its size. “The good news is that the birds seemed to be finding enough food in even the smaller urban habitats to refuel and continue their journey,” says co-author Stephen Matthews.

Still, there is power in numbers. As of May 2020, NWF has certified 240,000 backyard habitats. They range from a 100-acre parcel in California to a single balcony in New York City. “Creating a certified habitat in your own yard may seem like a small thing,” says Roxanne Paul, NWF’s former senior coordinator for community and volunteer outreach.  “But added together, these thousands of habitats do make a difference, both to migrating and local wildlife.”

Want to help migratory birds? Find out more about NWF's Certified Wildlife Habitat program—and start making a difference in the lives of these vulnerable and imperiled songsters. 

More from National Wildlife magazine and the National Wildlife Federation:

Flight Risk »
Going the Distance »
Blog: Five Migrating Birds that May Stop in Your Yard »

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