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What Migrating Songbirds Tell Us About Our Planet

As part of a year of activities to support birds and their habitats, National Geographic, BirdLife International, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and the National Audubon Society are convening an event featuring two expert panels to explore how technology is expanding our understanding of migration and how creative new solutions are advancing conservation and policy. Watch a live stream of the discussions here:...

Top photo: Kristen Ruegg of the Bird Genoscope Project. Photograph courtesy of Kristen Ruegg.

Songbirds roam every corner of our planet, and as global “canaries in the coal mine” could become our best indicators for the health status of life on Earth. So says Professor Martin C. Wikelski, Director of the Max-Planck Institute for Ornithology at the University of Konstanz, Germany. Wikelski has received numerous grants from the National Geographic Society to study animal migration and is a National Geographic Fellow. Much of his work involves tagging migrating animals with tiny instruments that record their movements by satellite. His latest Society grant goes further: He plans to fit 520 common cuckoos with newly developed tags that report GPS position, acceleration, magnetometer direction, temperature, humidity, pressure, and altitude, over two years.

A key feature in biodiversity are animals that move long distances, Wikelski explains. “They connect habitats in the most diverse areas across the globe.” Because humans have changed so much of Earth’s habitats, long-distance migrants are often the most endangered species. Songbirds in particular, many of which travel between continents every year, have suffered heavy losses as a group. In Europe alone, more than a quarter of songbirds have disappeared over the last 30 years; 380 million songbirds are lost every year.

As part of a year of activities to support birds and their habitats, National Geographic, BirdLife International, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and the National Audubon Society are convening an event featuring two expert panels to explore how technology is expanding our understanding of migration and how creative new solutions are advancing conservation and policy. Watch Thursday’s live stream of the discussions.

Something wrong in the environment

“Similar to the old miners working in dangerous coal mines deep under the earth, we can now use ‘canaries in the coal mine,’ that is migrating songbirds on the global level to alert us to problems of life-threatening biodiversity loss,” Wikelski notes. “The general demise of songbirds should be indicative for all of us that something is wrong in the environment. However, it is often unclear what this ‘something’ is, because we do not yet have the capacity to understand where, when and why individual songbirds die. That is, we do not yet understand where the threats for biodiversity come from throughout the entire migration range of songbirds.”

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Wikelski and his team started studying songbird migration some years ago by tagging common cuckoos with satellite-tracking tags to monitor their patterns from northern Europe into Africa. It was found that European cuckoos migrate through eastern Africa to Angola, winter there, and migrate back through the Congo, western Africa, the Sahara, Italy and  back to central Europe. “But while we have learned a lot about the general patterns, timing and dangers of some good migration through these studies, it is still unclear how common cuckoos across their entire range are migrating, how they are navigating to apparently the same wintering areas, and especially how young cuckoos (or other migrating species) learn to migrate and navigate as they have never seen any of their parents,” Wikelski explains.

How the public can help

Wikelski’s latest project to fill important gaps in understanding of global songbird migration engages the public in conservation efforts by following birds virtually.

The main goal is twofold: “First, we want to understand the diversity of movement and migration patterns across the entire range of one songbird species,” Wikelski explains. This has never been achieved before. “Second, we want the public to participate in the global migration of enigmatic species to understand the dangers and joys of global movements. Because of the GPS accuracy of tracking tags, we can showcase exactly which tree or bush the birds are resting in and even alert local residents that birds from many thousand kilometers away have arrived in their neighborhood to rest or winter.”

The enigma of how young cuckoos learn to migrate

“Scientifically, the most exciting objective is to understand how young cuckoos develop the continental migration routes without ever seeing their parents,” Wikelski says. “This includes questions of navigation, orientation, habitat selection and imprinting, predation avoidance, food-searching, use of air space and winds, as well as interactions with other species in diverse species assemblages during breeding, migration and wintering.

“As an additional benefit for the global public, we will showcase cuckoos as ambassadors for the conditions of life across three continents,” Wikelski adds. “Cuckoos are often located in the vicinity of humans, but only if the local habitat is conducive for breeding and production of other songbird species. Therefore, cuckoo locations will indicate excellent biodiversity conditions across their entire range.”

Bird Genoscape Project

The National Geographic live event also featured the work of the Bird Genoscape Project, which harnesses genomics to conserve migratory birds. More than 50 percent of North America’s migratory bird species are estimated to be declining, and without coordinated conservation efforts many species face extinction, says Kristen Ruegg, National Geographic Society grantee and co-director of the Bird Genoscope Project.

“For migratory birds, knowledge of connections between breeding, wintering and migratory stop-over areas is essential for the development of effective conservation strategies, but such information has historically been difficult to attain,” Ruegg says. “To address these challenges, the Bird Genoscape Project uses the latest genomic methods to: 1) map the migratory routes of North American birds using DNA from feathers and 2) predict the impacts of future climate change on the ability of populations to adapt. Combined with other life history data, this fine-grained information enables conservation scientists to target limited resources to the places in the annual cycle where they are most needed.

“We are currently constructing population-specific flyway maps and mapping climate adaptation in 14 species of migratory birds, ranging from endangered to common, with plans to expand our efforts to additional species of concern over the next decade.

“Working with conservation groups and decision makers such as the National Audubon Society, Federal and State agencies, and renewable energy companies, our goal is to translate our results into action to help stem migratory bird declines. In my presentation, I describe recent discoveries that we have made from mapping population specific migratory routes and climate adaptation in the endangered Southwestern Willow Flycatcher and how they are helping guide to conservation efforts.”

Year of the Bird is a 12-month public campaign initiated by National Geographic, the National Audubon Society, BirdLife International, and Cornell Lab of Ornithology, along with more than 175 supporting organizations from across the birding and conservation communities. The Year of the Bird aims to celebrate the beauty and importance of birds and nature, and to inspire people around the world to take action to help them. As we mark the centennial of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, pivotal U.S. legislation signed in 1918, we recognize birds as a symbol of nature’s interconnectedness and look to the next hundred years of caring for the planet we share.

The migration event, titled “Taking Flight: Bird Migration and Conservation Across Hemispheres,” helps to kick off the Year of the Bird by focusing on the challenges and solutions for conservation policy through the lens of birds.

Migrations and Tech panel:

  • Andrew Farnsworth – Research Associate, Cornell Lab of Ornithology
  • Martin Wikelski – NGS Fellow
  • Gary Langham – VP and Chief Scientist, National Audubon Society
  • Kristen Ruegg, NGS grantee – Bird Genoscape project

Conservation in Action panel:

  • Amanda Rodewald – Conservation Science Director, Cornell Lab of Ornithology
  • David Yarnold – President and CEO, National Audubon Society
  • Jonathan Baillie, Chief Scientist and SVP for Science and Exploration, NGS
  • Patricia Zurita, CEO of BirdLife International

Moderator (for both):

  • Laura Helmuth – Health, Science and Environment Editor at The Washington Post

    Painting of various migratory songbirds whose numbers are declining. Illustration by H. Douglas Pratt.


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Meet the Author

Author Photo David Max Braun
More than forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Max Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. In his 22-year career at National Geographic he was VP and editor in chief of National Geographic Digital Media, and the founding editor of the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directed the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. A regular expert on National Geographic Expeditions, David also lectures on storytelling for impact. He has 120,000 followers on social media: Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn