Introducing Audubon’s Migratory Bird Initiative—and How You Can HelpIntroducing Audubon’s Migratory Bird Initiative—and How You Can Help

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My fascination with birds didn’t start until I was an undergraduate student at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. It was there that I had the opportunity to hold my first bird—a Black-capped Chickadee—as part of an ornithology course.

When I held it, I was in awe of its beauty—the details of its plumage, its small and delicate body – but at the same time I was struck by its tenacity at trying to escape. That’s when my career in birds took flight.

Not long afterwards I was traveling through Mexico and encountered many familiar birds from home, not the Black-capped Chickadee, but rather many other songbirds, shorebirds and waterfowl I became familiar with. It made me wonder about why birds migrate and how they do it, especially the small ones. Since then I’ve devoted my career to studying bird migration.

As a migration scientist, I’m often asked to share interesting facts or stories about migratory birds, but it’s quite difficult to settle on just one. Migratory birds defy our perception of reality in so many ways there’s no shortage of stories. For example, should I tell them about Blackpoll Warblers, which weigh only as much as two quarters and travel three days nonstop across the Atlantic Ocean? Or should I explain to them how Broad-winged Hawks migrate in large flocks, called “kettles,” by the thousands, soaring on thermals from their breeding grounds to wintering habitat thousands of miles away. More than 1.5 million of these amazing birds pass through a narrow migration bottleneck in coastal Veracruz each fall.

Of course, once I convince people how incredible migratory birds are—and it’s usually clear by the look of amazement on their faces—I tell them about the accumulating threats to birds, of which there is no shortage. Habitat loss and alteration, tall human-made structures, introduced species, and, of course, climate change are driving population declines in more than half of North America’s bird species.

To protect birds, we need not only to protect the places they breed and overwinter, but also to protect the migratory pathways they use and reduce the threats they face at these places. To achieve that goal, the National Audubon Society has launched the Migratory Bird Initiative.

The Initiative brings together the latest research on species distributions and movements across the full annual cycle as for 520 species of migratory birds in the Western Hemisphere. Audubon will gather three types of location data: occurrence (e.g. eBird, Christmas Bird Count), connectivity (e.g. banding data), and pathway (e.g. satellite or radio telemetry, geolocation).

Here’s the thing: no one has done this before, so there is no single repository for this kind of research for so many species of birds. This means Audubon, through partnerships and old-fashioned retail outreach, will be acquiring this information wherever it exists.

Every last bit of research on these species will help Audubon build our migration database, so please keep participating in your Christmas Bird Counts and submitting eBird checklists! If you are a researcher, please consider contributing your data to this cause.

As mentioned above, partnerships will be central to our success, because protecting migratory birds is too big of a problem for any of us to tackle alone. Thankfully, science groups like the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, Bird Studies Canada, other key research institutions as well as thousands of research scientists across the Americas are collecting data on migratory birds that form the foundation of effective conservation and policy strategies. Conservation agencies, like BirdLife International, American Bird Observatory and SELVA, among many others, are using science to develop and implement conservation strategies.

Of course, we are also working with teams across the National Audubon Society network.We look forward to working with state offices, centers and chapters to create the roadmap to conservation success that we all can work from to protect birds and the places they need today and tomorrow. Most importantly, we will engage people in the joy and stories of migration to inspire them to take their own actions to protect the places that matter most across the Americas.

The Migratory Bird Initiative is just taking flight, so please stay tuned for more. In the meantime, read some of our recent stories about the incredible science and scientists studying migratory birds. If you’re interested in learning more about how you can contribute data please email us at

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