Friday, March 20, 2015

DNA Barcode Conference Plenary - Bridget Stutchbury

Today another guest post by a conference plenary speaker:

Bridget Stutchbury is an ornithologist and professor in the Department of Biology at York University, Toronto. Bridget completed her M.Sc. at Queen’s University and her Ph.D. at Yale, and was a postdoctoral fellow at the Smithsonian Institution where she studied the ‘winter’ ecology of migrants in the tropics. As a Canada Research Chair at York U, Bridget studied migratory songbirds to investigate extra-pair mating systems, off-territory movements, and demographics in fragmented landscapes. She also published a series of papers, and a book, on the behavioural ecology of tropical birds and why it differs from typical temperate zone models. Her current research focusses on tracking the incredible long distance migration journeys of songbirds to understand their migration strategies and population declines. She serves on the board of Wildlife Preservation Canada and is the author of Silence of the Songbirds (2007) and The Bird Detective (2010).

Making the connection between Wood Thrush declines and tropical deforestation

Wood Thrushes are seldom seen but their flute-like song is bold, beautiful, and full of life. Summer evenings can bring a refreshing and ringing dusk chorus of “ee-oh-lay” from the thrushes in nearby forests but this once common bird is well on its way to becoming a rarity. According to the Breeding Bird Survey this species has declined by over 50% since the late 1960s. The Wood Thrush is an ambassador for the forest birds of eastern North America, and a modern day ‘canary in the coal mine’. 

I first wrote about the demise of the Wood Thrush in Silence of the Songbirds (2007) and began a large research project to track the migration of individual birds and map out their core wintering sites in Central America. My students and I used newly miniaturized tracking devices called ‘geolocators’ which the birds carry as a little backpack, and which must be retrieved and downloaded when the bird returns back to its breeding site the next year.  

In May 2008, my graduate students caught the very first Wood Thrush to be tracked for its entire migration. The migration  maps showed that at the same time that its breeding site in Pennsylvania had been buried under 18 inches of fresh snow, the Wood Thrush had been in Nicaragua and completely at home in a world of strangler figs, howler monkeys, and toucans.  I was stunned to see that in spring this bird had flown 3,700 kilometers in only two weeks, including a non-stop flight across the Gulf of Mexico. We have now tracked over 70 Wood Thrushes that bred in the central- and northeastern US, or Ontario, and discovered that the vast majority travel to E. Honduras, Nicaragua or western Costa Rica to escape winter.

This part of Central America is a Wood Thrush hotspot, but the tragedy is that it is also a deforestation hotspot and is losing its tropical forests at one of the highest rates in the world. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization 2011 State of the World’s Forests report, since 1990 Honduras has lost 27% of its forest, and Nicaragua 31%, to agriculture.  It should come as no surprise, then, that Wood Thrushes who depend on those forests are disappearing quickly. 

What can the average person do to make sure that our Wood Thrushes, and other forest songbirds, remain common and serenade future generations for years to come? We must support organizations that work to protect migratory birds, like Bird Studies Canada. But we can also help every morning by drinking coffee that was grown in a forest-like habitat. Bird Friendly® certified shade coffee farms provide tropical forest habitat for dozens of species of migratory songbirds, as well as tropical birds that there live year round.  Saving the traditional heavily shaded coffee farms throughout this region of Central America would protect tens of thousands of hectares of habitat for Wood Thrush and other migrants. But coffee farmers need your help and support!

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