What You Need to Know About the Migratory Bird Initiative

Audubon outreach biologists Mikko Jimenez and Chad Witko discuss this ambitious project to protect birds along their full migratory journeys.

The Migratory Bird Initiative (MBI) was created with one mission: to secure the future of migratory birds in the Western Hemisphere using the power of migration science. As one critical component of this work, the Migratory Bird Initiative is helping to gather the latest information on where hundreds of bird species go to breed and winter in the Americas throughout their annual cycles as well as their migratory routes between these places. Namely, the three key types of migration data are: occurrence and abundance data from models of eBird data (Cornell Lab of Ornithology), banding encounter data (courtesy of the USGS Bird Banding Lab), and tracking data such as geolocators and satellite transmitters (from numerous sources primarily hosted on Movebank). 

Realizing what it would mean for bird conservation to connect these three types of data in a bigger, unified picture, Audubon brought together a team of scientists, biologists, GIS/data analysts, and communicators. The initiative integrates these data to better understand birds’ annual cycles, connections, and threats. Identifying threats allows Audubon and partners to protect the hundreds of species of migratory birds soaring across the Western Hemisphere. 

Mikko Jimenez and Chad Witko are the MBI team’s ambassadors. As outreach biologists on the team, they spend their days reaching out to scientific institutions, researchers, and other nonprofit organizations to explain the initiative, answer their questions, and ask stakeholders to contribute tracking data to the Migratory Bird Initiative. Below, Jimenez and Witko answer commonly asked questions about the Migratory Bird Initiative. 

What is the goal of Audubon’s Migratory Bird Initiative?

The Migratory Bird Initiative aims to secure a future for migratory birds across the Western Hemisphere by sharing the joy of migration, identifying and reducing direct threats, and protecting critical places throughout the Americas across their full annual cycle. Rigorous science and coordination with science, conservation, and policy partners, make this work possible. 

How does migration data help bird conservation?

The Migratory Bird Initiative and our partners bring together the latest spatial data to reveal a complete picture of North American migratory bird distributions and migrations. With this information we can tell the story of migratory birds and the places that are important to them. With these maps and stories, we can engage our audiences to take actions to protect these places for birds, today and tomorrow.

Once you get the data, what then?

The purpose for assembling the data is twofold. The first purpose is public engagement and education around the joy of migration and threats to migratory birds. The Migratory Bird Initiative is using contributed data to develop an online Migratory Bird Conservation Platform to highlight migration patterns for 550 North American species, as well maps that show how birds connect people across the hemisphere and the threats they face. Most importantly, it will show how you can take action to protect them and the areas they need most. With animated full annual cycle maps and exploratory tools to look at where your birds go, the experience will be like none other.

Second, we are interested in using the data to identify the most important places for migratory birds, to better understand how birds are threatened in these places and what we can do to protect them.  We’re excited to work with other researchers on focused projects across the hemisphere that will help Audubon and other organizations protect migratory birds. We will appropriately cite all the data we use per the data-holder's preference.


How can non-scientists contribute to Audubon’s Migratory Bird Initiative?

Most importantly, all visitors to the Migratory Bird Conservation Platform will be able to take key actions at home and online to protect against threats birds face throughout the year. As always, community scientists can also contribute to our efforts by participating in community science projects or applications like eBird.

Analyses of eBird data from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology help power the spatial database from which all our work originates. Last but not least, bird enthusiasts can help us spread the word about migratory birds by sharing maps and stories with family and friends over social media.

How does MBI interact with similar efforts like the Migratory Connectivity Project?

While MBI is developing our online interactive platform, the Migratory Connectivity Project is developing their forthcoming book Discovering Unknown Migrations: The Atlas of Migratory Connectivity for the Birds of North AmericaThe Migratory Connectivity Project has been gathering tracking data and expanding animal migration research to many species that are understudied. Their work includes recording 2 million bird locations representing 23 species, many of which represent species that had their full annual cycles recorded for the first time ever. 

Given the complementary goals of that initiative and the functions of the Migratory Bird Conservation Platform, Audubon is excited to partner with the Migratory Connectivity Project to complete both projects. We have combined efforts to discover and access tracking data for migratory birds and share ideas and expertise across organizations.

How do you organize the data? 

Keeping this much data organized is a huge task. To accomplish this, we have partnered with Movebank, a free online platform that helps researchers manage, share, analyze and archive animal movement data. We ask that researchers post their data on Movebank and then share it with us through the site. Each researcher retains ownership of their data and can control with whom they share it. 

Do data-holders have any concerns about how Audubon will use their data?

As outreach biologists, one of our jobs is to understand any concerns researchers have about sharing their data.

Many data-holders have devoted their life’s work to their research, investing time and effort to gather that data and to secure the funding that made their research possible. Occasionally researchers are concerned that their shared data will be used by others before they have a chance to publish it themselves, in which case we keep in touch with them and follow up once their publication is complete. Other times, published researchers are concerned about data being used for additional studies without their guidance or acknowledgment.  When this arises, we have one-on-one conversations with researchers or research teams to build a shared understanding of MBI and explain our process for inviting data-holders to collaborate on publishable studies that rely on their data and crediting their work in our digital products.  

In the end, we hope that sharing data helps researchers further disseminate their work, demonstrates the importance of their data, and earns the benefits of participation in MBI through contributing to hemispheric conservation efforts for migratory birds. 

When will the Migratory Bird Initiative online platform be ready for the public?

If everything goes according to plan, we'll be launching in summer 2021.


Reporting by Khanh (Kay) Nguyen, in partnership with Mikko Jimenez and Chad Witko. 

Full citations:

BirdLife International and Handbook of the Birds of the World. 2017. Bird species distribution maps of the world. Version 7.0. Available at http://datazone.birdlife.org/species/requestdis. 

Fink, D., T Auer, A Johnston, M Strimas-Mackey, O Robinson, S Ligocki, B Petersen, C Wood, I Davies, B Sullivan, M Iliff, S Kelling. 2020. eBird Status and Trends, Data Version: 2018; Released: 2020. Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York. https://doi.org/10.2173/ebirdst.2018. 

Fleishman, E., Anderson, J., Dickson, B.G., Krolick, D., Estep, J.A., Anderson, R.L., Elphick, C.S., Dobkin, D.S., Bell, D.A. (2016) Space use by Swainson’s hawk (Buteo swainsoni) in the Natomas Basin, California. Collabra. 2(1): 5.

Kochert, M.N., Fuller, M.R., Schueck, L.S., Bond, L., Bechard, M.J., Woodbridge, B., Holroyd, G.L., Martell, M.S., Banasch, U. (2011) Migration patterns, use of stopover areas, and austral summer movements of Swainson’s hawks. Condor. 113: 89-106. 

Muñiz-López, R. (2018) Asociación Accipiter, Faunaetus, Departamento de Zoología de Vertebrados, Universidad Alicante.