Celebrating Thirty Years of Partnering for Migratory Bird Conservation

Three decades ago, scientists realized that protecting birds across their full annual cycle required working with everyone along the way.

In 1990, Ice Ice Baby topped the charts, Nelson Mandela was released from prison, East and West Germany reunited and people were talking about the decline of Neotropical migrant birds. (Neotropical migrants are birds that spend most of their lives in the tropics but migrate north for the nesting season.) In the previous year, John Terborgh had published his book Where Have All the Birds Gone? in which he argued that action needed to be taken sooner rather than later to address these declines. However, as the title of his book implied, there were questions among conservationists about how best to address these declines.

The same year Terborgh’s book was published, a meeting of ornithologists concluded that there was no clear consensus on whether declines of migrants were driven by changes on the breeding grounds or wintering grounds. What was clear was that addressing these declines would require many organizations and agencies to working together across the western hemisphere.

It was in this context that Partners in Flight was formed in 1990 with the mission of “keeping common birds common and helping species at risk through voluntary partnerships.” Representatives from state and federal agencies, industry, and non-profit conservation organizations signed the original memorandum of understanding. Shortly after that, the group received funding from the US Fish and Wildlife Service to hire a coordinator and other staff.

For the last 30 years, Partners in Flight has brought together these diverse stakeholders to lead science efforts to better understand bird ecology and factors that limit bird populations, as well as design and implement conservation plans to halt and reverse bird population declines.

“Partners in Flight has played a critical role in bringing together the bird conservation community and developing the resources and plans that allow everyone to work together to protect migratory birds,” says Jill Deppe, senior director of Audubon’s Migratory Bird Initiative.

The broad array of participants, including federal and state agencies, the military and various industries, “had the effect of greatly increasing the resources directed to bird conservation, and expanded our understanding of the status of and concerns about bird populations,” said Stan Senner, Audubon’s vice president of conservation.

Today, Partners in Flight is a dynamic and welcoming network of more than 150 partner organizations throughout the western hemisphere engaged in all aspects of landbird conservation.

“Partners is Flight is a true grassroots initiative that has been the catalyst for ground breaking strategies for three decades.  We’ve opened new opportunities for bird conservation that have included a species vulnerability assessment that incorporates keeping our common birds common,” said Bob Ford, Partners in Flight US national coordinator.

 And the work is more important than ever. Although the declines of many Neotropical migrants have continued, with coordinated action we know the recovery of these populations is possible.

“There’s still much to be done, especially in view of the recent study on the loss of three billion birds in North America and the current and future impacts of climate change,” said Senner.

As it was 30 years ago, keeping common birds common is an urgent call to action.

Audubon’s Migratory Bird Initiative aims to continue and grow the mission of Partners in Flight in a similar spirit using the latest in migration tracking technology. By collaborating with researchers and partners in bird conservation organizations across the hemisphere, the Migratory Bird Initiative will develop a first-of-its-kind platform to track the migratory journeys of 520 species, identify and address conservation threats along the full annual cycle, and engage the public in the joy of migration to protect birds and the places they need, today and tomorrow.