On the Wing

How can national parks help protect bird species that are here only a few months every year?


By Kelly Bastone


They’re Bandelier’s autumn celebrities. Every year, as August’s warm nights give way to the cool evenings of September, two species of showy yellow warblers—the Wilson’s warbler and Townsend’s warbler—decorate the trees at New Mexico’s Bandelier National Monument. During their breeding season up north, the birds’ songs are every bit as dazzling as their plumage.

But their Bandelier appearance is a short-lived show. Like the millions of migratory birds that fly south each fall, these warblers are bound for Latin America, so they stop in New Mexico for only a few weeks. Which means that to protect these traveling showbirds, the National Park Service must somehow reach beyond its official boundaries.

The Park Flight Migratory Bird Program does just that. Created in 1998, this partnership among the National Park Service, the National Park Foundation, and other national and international organizations strives to protect migratory species and their habitats throughout the Americas—not just in U.S. national parks.

“We’re thinking in terms of the whole hemisphere and sometimes beyond,” says Carol Beidleman, coordinator of the Park Flight Migratory Bird Program. That’s because the birds’ life-cycle spans several enormous regions. After wintering in Mexico, Central America, South America, and the Caribbean, the birds migrate every spring to the U.S. and Canada, where they breed. But as fall approaches, they reverse the journey, following “flyways” that funnel them back to their tropical homes. Even for a jetliner, it would rank as a long flight. But for palm-sized birds—some of which weigh just half an ounce—it’s a boggling feat. “If we want to protect these species,” says Beidleman, “We have to be thinking in this broader life-cycle context.”

Recent data suggest that migratory species do indeed need a boost. Population studies conducted by the Monitoring Avian Productivity and Survivorship (MAPS) Program calculated nearly a 25-percent decline in the 192 landbird species studied; some warbler populations have declined by 40 percent or more. The wood thrush, for example, used to be a fixture in backyards all across the eastern U.S., but these days, its haunting song is heard far less frequently.

It’s not clear what’s causing such declines, but suspected threats include pesticide use (chemicals outlawed in the U.S. are still used in other countries), habitat degradation, and fragmentation. “Habitat within the national parks is obviously protected, but there are places worldwide—and even within the U.S.—where it’s threatened,” Beidleman says. Some species are also caught and collected for sale as pets. Climate change is a growing concern worldwide. And some areas where birds winter or stop over have no protections at all.

"Ultimately, our national parks alone will not be able to protect many of the species that visitors come to see—species that play such vital roles in maintaining healthy ecosystems in our parks,” says Stephen Morris, chief of the National Park Service's Office of International Affairs. “Their long-term survival depends on cooperative activities between the National Park Service and partners in the countries where these species migrate and overwinter.”

To stimulate such cooperation, the Park Flight Migratory Bird Program promotes integrated population-monitoring efforts, so that observers in various locations can contribute their data to a collective pool. It also pursues funding for those efforts, and has supported conservation projects and exchange programs in a wide range of U.S. parks and 19 other countries. But just as important, it develops education and outreach initiatives that foster cross-cultural appreciation for the birds.

One such initiative is the International Volunteers in Parks program, which brings young biologists from Latin America, Canada, and the Caribbean to U.S. park units so they can learn the latest monitoring techniques and share their perspectives on bird populations. So far, 68 international Park Flight volunteers have served in U.S. parks, where they’ve assisted in bird-banding projects and led interpretive programs for park visitors.

“It really helped me,” says Angélica Hernández Palma, a biology student at Colombia’s Universidad del Valle who interned at Bandelier from July through November 2009. “American parks have all this information about the birds, but we don’t. I learned a lot of techniques, and I can apply the things that I learned with birds [in my own country.]”

That ripple effect is exactly what the Park Flight program aims to achieve. “The U.S. has a better capacity [than Latin America] for research and species study, but we can’t do much for the birds when they’re at their wintering grounds,” says Stephen Fettig, a wildlife biologist at Bandelier National Monument. That’s where U.S.-trained interns can make a difference. “Sixty-eight interns may not seem like a lot,” he admits, but the program’s first volunteers are already becoming conservation leaders in their countries. “They’re building capacity for monitoring, scientific work, and education in the birds’ wintering routes,” he says. “And ultimately, over the long term, we will see benefits in U.S. parks.”

In fact, says Carol Beidleman, our parks have already seen gains by welcoming international volunteers. “We learn a tremendous amount from them, about the issues these birds face when they’re not here,” she says.

That learning extends to park visitors, who also benefit from the Park Flight program’s educational outreach initiatives. Programs inform visitors to New Jersey Coastal Heritage Trail Route about the health and numbers of migrating shorebirds. Latino outreach programs implemented at parks surrounded by Latino communities help make the Park Service—and its conservation goals—relevant to Spanish-speaking populations. And Bandelier National Monument hosts students from nearby Native American communities for banding demonstrations that they will remember for the rest of their lives, says Fettig.

That’s because those students don’t just learn about species’ age, sex, and body fat—they also develop a sense of advocacy for migratory birds. “That is a bigger purpose of the Park Flight program,” Fettig says. “Appreciation comes from learning. When people have the birds in front of them, in their hands, it really instills a feeling of connectedness across the continent.”

Kelly Bastone is a freelance writer living in Steamboat Springs, Colorado.

This article appears in the Spring 2010 issue.

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