Why Bird Advocates Want to Double Down on Conservation Across the Americas

A bipartisan U.S. bill would ramp up funding for the Neotropical Migratory Bird Conservation Act, an under-the-radar program with a long reach.
group of teenagers with two adults standing on a trail with green mountains in the background
A curriculum funded by the NMBCA combines taxonomy and traditional knowledge for Indigenous students from San Antonio del Chamí, Colombia. Photo: Andrés Estefan

Update April 25, 2024: President Joe Biden yesterday signed into law the Migratory Birds of the Americas Conservation Enhancements Act.

Birds are everywhere at the school in Cañaveral, Colombia. Their songs fill the air. Their nests perch in flowerpots. And each Tuesday every classroom celebrates birds, from the short tales children write in Spanish class to science lessons about migratory journeys.

Since 2021 around 450 kids at 8 schools in Colombia’s coffee belt have been immersed in these lessons that seek to build support for conservation. “Kids now know about the worms that birds bring to their chicks and the birds’ scientific names,” says John Edison Martínez Delgado, academic coordinator at Cañaveral school. “They’re always drawing them in their notebooks.”

Audubon and a local university developed the curriculum for one of more than 700 projects funded through the U.S. Neotropical Migratory Bird Conservation Act (NMBCA), the only federal grant program dedicated to conserving birds across the Americas. Since 2002 it has pumped $89 million—$440 million, if you count matching funds—into habitat protection, research, and education in 43 countries. It has delivered three-quarters of that funding outside the United States to regions where some 390 long-distance migratory species spend much of their lives. And though the NMBCA is designed to benefit birdlife, advocates say it also supports people on the front lines of conservation, from Canada to Chile.

While the act’s geographic scale is vast, advocates say it needs more cash to help stem population declines driven by climate change, habitat destruction, and other threats. That’s why supporters are urging lawmakers to pass bipartisan legislation to increase funding and make it accessible to more communities. “It’s a perfect time to look back at this program, to work with Congress, and provide some options about how to address some of these steep declines,” says Erik Schneider, policy manager at Audubon.

Before Congress passed the NMBCA in 2000, wildlife managers across the Americas were alarmed by mounting evidence that development in migratory birds’ winter habitats was eroding populations. They saw the need for coordinated action—and for funding to make it happen.

Setting aside protected areas, however, is not enough.

To help foster that collaboration, the act required recipients to come up with $3 to match every $1 in U.S. government grants. As a result, organizations have banded together across borders to work with locals at key sites, says Ingrid Arias, develop­ment director at the nonprofit FUNDAECO. Using NMBCA funds, the group has partnered with the American Bird Conservancy (ABC) to purchase and protect more than 16,000 acres of forest habitat for Wood Thrush, Baltimore Oriole, and other species on Guatemala’s Caribbean Coast.

Setting aside protected areas, however, is not enough. Since many neotropical migrants winter on farms and other working lands that people rely on for their livelihoods, NMBCA projects also nurture connections with often remote communities, supporters say. Along with their work at schools in Colombia’s coffee belt, Audubon Americas and local partners have inked conservation agreements with growers there who commit to respect the biodiversity corridors running through their coffee farms. And in Guatemala, FUNDAECO and ABC have established native tree nurseries and bird-friendly cardamom farms run by community members.

The program also protects habitat in more urban areas. In Chile, Audubon Americas and nearly 80 partners used NMBCA funds to create the first conservation plan for a wetland, now being engulfed by the growing city of Concepción, where shorebirds like Baird’s Sandpiper and Hudsonian Godwit overwinter. Now another grant is helping to build support for the plan and to train locals as coastal stewards.

As effective as the act’s cost-share requirement has been at spurring teamwork, proponents argue that it could be lower and still serve that function—while opening the door to more partners. The proposed Migratory Birds of the Americas Conservation Enhancements Act would set the match at two-to-one, a change Arias says is especially needed today: “Since the pandemic, many environmental organizations’ fundraising ability has suffered a lot.”

What’s more, the bill would double the program’s annual budget to $10 million by 2028. That would be a big step, supporters say, toward the goal of making it a habitat-protecting force comparable to the North American Wetlands Conservation Act. That program has funded projects on more than 32 million acres, or nearly 10 times the scale of the NMBCA, and is widely credited with reversing declines in waterfowl populations. Other migratory birds desperately need—and could soon have a better shot at—a similar rebound.

This story originally ran in the Winter 2023 issue as “Ready for a Rebound.” To receive our print magazine, become a member by making a donation today.