Migration and Habitat Loss

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Birds have been migrating great distances for thousands of years, but over the last few centuries these feathered travelers have run into a great number of perils previously unknown by their ancestors. The world of today, specifically our human societies, is evolving faster and faster each day. This can create huge problems for birds and other wildlife that may not be able to adapt and change their behaviors to fit the needs of their environments. Thus when humans make drastic changes to an environment, they may also (intentionally or unintentionally) be causing a habitat to become unhealthy for birds and other animals. This is especially important to keep in mind in the Florida Keys, because every autumn we see millions of migrating birds fly to our island via the Atlantic Flyway on their journeys to South America and Central America. While visiting the Keys, migratory birds rest and refuel before finishing their trips across the ocean. For this reason, maintaining healthy habitats for migratory birds is paramount to the survival of Florida Keys ecosystems.

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In our programs that focus on maintaining healthy habitats, we always impress upon students that in order for a habitat to be viable for birds, it requires four major components; food, water, shelter, and open space. If any of these four elements are missing or compromised, then it can’t be considered a great habitat for birds. In some cases, finding the source that’s cause one of the big four requirements to not be met can more complex than a surface level issue. For instance, removing mosquitoes and other pest from a natural environment can be beneficial to humans, but in doing so a vital source of food for birds and other animals is also being removed at the same time. Even if all of the pests aren’t removed the total amount of food available to animals in an ecosystem can be lowered significantly. This can cause the carrying capacity (maximum number of individuals of a given species that can survive in a particular ecosystem) of one or multiple species to plummet. This can create a domino-effect type of a situation, and if the effects are great enough, then an entire ecosystem can be transformed. In smaller, fragile ecosystems like those found in the Florida Keys, these transformations can be devastating. In terms of a global scale, habitat loss and fragmentation (ex: highway construction through forests and wetlands that break up larger systems into smaller systems) is the single biggest threat facing wildlife today.

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So you may be asking, “what can I do to help migrating birds?” We’re glad that you asked! Here are some steps that everyone can take to help more birds migrate successfully:

• Keep cats indoors as much as possible. It’s estimated that domestic cats kill upwards of 3.7 billion birds each year, and the worst part is that they don’t eat the birds that they catch. Cats are simply hardwired to catch and kill birds, and the birds that they hunt didn’t evolve to be able to evade these stealthy killers.

• Plant native trees and bushes. Native vegetation can provide shelter and food (berries and fruits) for birds.

• Hang window clings and blinds to reduce the number of birds that collide with clear glass windows. Some birds are only stunned after flying into a window, but many sustain lethal internal injuries.

• Avoid using chemical pest deterrents, especially anticoagulants that cause animals that ingest them to die slow, painful deaths. These chemicals can make their way up trophic levels until they eventually are ingested by larger predators including migrating hawks and falcons.

By taking small steps to keep our habitats healthy and intact, we can all do our part to making every fall migration successful!

Ian Martin, Education Coordinator, 2016

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