Where Do the Birds Go?

Audubon’s Migratory Bird Initiative has already started to find out.
In a landscape of shrubs and palms, one person stands atop a ladder holding the top of a small tower with three antennas, while two others stand at the base of the tower.
Staff from Audubon Americas and Bahamas National Trust erect the first Motus wildlife tracking tower in Kamalame Cay, Andros, the Bahamas. Photo: Camilla Cerea/Audubon

Every spring some of my favorite birds—Swainson’s Thrush, Blackpoll Warbler, and Ruby-throated Hummingbird—pass through the Washington, D.C., area on their way from their winter homes in Central and South America to their summer homes in the north. But the details of their journeys can be a mystery: Do they move through the mangrove forests along the Gulf Coast of Mexico? Brave a nonstop flight between the Yucatán and Louisiana? Island-hop through the West Indies?

When it comes to the conservation of migratory birds, these questions matter. We cannot protect migratory birds unless we know where they go. The development and use of better and smaller tracking technologies like geolocators, radio telemetry tags, and satellite backpacks, in addition to bird banding and recapture efforts across the hemisphere, have filled in the gaps for some species. But a comprehensive look at bird migration across families has, until now, been quite difficult.

To get a truly hemispheric look at avian migration, Audubon and its partners in the Migratory Bird Initiative have been working with scientists across the world to compile these migration data. We have started to identify the areas that birds need most, especially during migration, to increase the impact of our conservation work. This initiative brings together the latest spatial information on species distributions and movements across annual cycles to identify flight paths and priority areas for 458 migratory bird species that regularly breed in the United States and Canada.

I cannot wait to see what we will learn going forward.

Check out our feature story to learn more about the Migratory Bird Initiative and early results of this ambitious multiyear effort, which is spearheaded by Senior Director Jill Deppe, and accomplished by a cohort of scientists at Audubon, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and elsewhere. I cannot wait to see what we will learn going forward. Later this year we will be launching the Bird Migration Explorer, a platform open to the public that maps the migrations of these 458 species and highlights the conservation challenges these birds face along their migratory pathways.

Consider this a first step in a longer journey. Once we identify the areas that birds need most, we will still need to protect them. Our Audubon Americas program, funded in part by $12 million from the Bezos Earth Fund and partnered with American Bird Conservancy and BirdLife International, will be working with local governments and communities in Chile, Colombia, Panama, and beyond to protect the places that birds and people need. That work parallels our existing efforts both in the United States and in the boreal forest of Canada.

I am so incredibly proud of the work that the science and Audubon Americas teams are doing, and I cannot wait to share more of it with you over the next few months. By working together—uniting on-the-ground knowledge of the birds in your own backyard with Audubon’s tools and technical know-how—we make bird conservation that much more powerful.

This piece originally ran in the Spring 2022 issue. To receive our print magazine, become a member by making a donation today.