Migratory Birds Seek Safety

Purdue University study finds birds will stop just about anywhere that’s protected.

| September 4, 2009

  • Sandhill cranes fly in the glow of a sunset.
    Sandhill cranes fly in the glow of a sunset.
    iStockphoto.com/Jill Fromer
  • Snow geese land in a field of winter rye.
    Snow geese land in a field of winter rye.
    iStockphoto.com/Kevin Miller
  • Geese come in for a landing.
    Geese come in for a landing.
    iStockphoto.com/Sarah Holmstrom
  • A sandhill cranes silhouetted in a golden sunset.
    A sand hill crane is silhouetted in a golden sunrise.
    iStockphoto.com/ Vallarie Enriquez

  • Sandhill cranes fly in the glow of a sunset.
  • Snow geese land in a field of winter rye.
  • Geese come in for a landing.
  • A sandhill cranes silhouetted in a golden sunset.

West Lafayette, Indiana – If a lush, protected forest with a winding stream is considered luxury accommodation for a migratory bird, a Purdue University study shows that those birds would be just as happy with the equivalent of a cheap roadside motel.

John Dunning, a Purdue associate professor of forestry and natural resources, found that migrating birds are just as likely to stop in small woodlots in the middle of an agricultural field for the night as long as there is adequate protection and food. Dunning said the finding suggests that conservation efforts should extend to smaller forested lands to help stabilize declining migratory bird populations.

"There are strategies for conserving forest for migratory birds, but those strategies emphasize the largest patches of forest," Dunning says. "We found that even very small woodlots were filled with migratory birds at times. It makes us believe we also need to conserve the little patches of forest, not just the big ones."

Dunning and graduate student Diane Packett observed woodlots at three distances from Indiana's Wabash River and its tributaries – within half a kilometer, between one and five kilometers and at about 20 kilometers. The woodlots were less than 20 acres and had row crops surrounding them on at least three sides. Dunning and Packett made observations in both spring and fall and reported their findings in a recent issue of The Auk, the journal of the American Ornithologists' Union.

There were 76 different species of migratory birds found in the woodlots, with no statistical differences in the number of species or overall population of birds based on distance from streams.

Packett says the birds, which travel thousands of miles between South and Central America and Canada twice each year, sometimes just need a place to stop along their journey. As forests have been cleared for development, agriculture and other uses, those birds have to make do with whatever patches of forest they can find when they become tired or encounter bad weather.

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