Archive for January, 2013

Nearly eight hundred bird species are known to occur in the United States of America.  Of those, approximately five hundred migrate across our national borders.  Of these five hundred migratory species, a large majority winter in the Caribbean, Central America, or South America.  These birds, that migrate between the United States and any of the Latin American countries, are the neotropical migrants.

Today, throughout the western hemisphere, deforestation and development are causing habitat loss that threatens the survival of these neotropical migrants.  Furthermore, agricultural practices, and the pesticide use that goes along with them, are causing not only more habitat destruction, but exposure to toxic chemicals as well.  The habitat found in the Caribbean is particularly important due to the fact that most migratory species use this area as a staging ground as they prepare to move across the Gulf of Mexico.  They use the area both as a recovery area after they have made the crossing to their wintering grounds in the south or before they make the crossing to their breeding grounds in the north.

To protect these birds and their habitat, the Neotropical Migratory Bird Conservation Act (NMBCA), which was authored by Republican Senator Spencer Abraham of Michigan1, passed both houses of congress with wide, bi-partisan support2, and was signed into law by President Clinton on the 21st of July 2000.  It is an international agreement between seventeen states in the U.S. and twenty-five Latin American or Caribbean nations3.  The Act is to be administered by the Secretary of the Interior through the Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  It provides a broad spectrum approach to bird conservation, as stated in the Act, “Because neotropical migratory birds range across numerous international borders each year, their conservation requires the commitment and effort of all countries along their migration routes”4.  Broad spectrum protection, the setting aside of habitat in all the areas that a given bird species requires it, has been something that both gamebird and non-gamebird advocates have been seeking for some time.

The stated purpose of the Act is threefold.  First, to “perpetuate healthy populations of neotropical migratory birds.”4 Second, to support conservation initiatives in Latin America, the Caribbean, and the USA.  And third, to provide financial resources for these projects.  The first two are works in progress.  They are not goals that can be achieved overnight.  However, neither one will come to pass at all if the third purpose is not accomplished.

Part of the original legislation of the Act creates the Neotropcial Migratory Bird Conservation Account.  Into this account, congress allocated five million dollars to be placed each year for five years to provide for the “conservation of neotrpocial migratory bird populations, including maintenance, management, protection, and restoration of neotropical migratory bird habitat, research and monitoring, law enforcement, and community outreach and education.”5 The Act states that at least 75% of the funding must be spent outside the borders of the United States of America, and that every federal dollar be matched with three dollars from non-federal sources6.  However, no funding was included in president Clinton’s last budget, and president Bush’s first budge had no money for the NMBCA either.  2002 was the first year that the NMBCA had government funding, and even then it was only three of the five million dollars that the Act called for.  Since 2002, congress has allocated $35 million to the NMBCA and has raised another $150 million from private sources.

One of the strongest points of the Act is that it brings coordination to all of the existing initiatives that are attempting to protect migratory birds.  Due to the fact that all the data that is gathered by the various projects funded by the Act is to be concentrated by the Secretary of the Interior, he/she has the ability to look at all the related information and then see where gaps in coverage may be.  The Secretary of the Interior can use all the available projects to the best advantage, reducing overlap and insuring as even a distribution of protection as possible.  Because of this, the NMBCA has served, and is continuing to serve, as a major conduit for the development of bird conservation plans in the future.

To give a taste of what can be done with even the $3 million that was allocated to the Act in 2002, and remember that this not the full funding it was supposed to receive, the following is a list of projects that received funding from the NMBCA just in 2002:

  • Development of landscape models for grassland bird habitat conservation in Montana, North and South Dakota, Minnesota, and Iowa.
  • Manage introduced rodents that are detrimental to the reproductive success of neotropcial migratory birds nesting on islands in Alaska, California, and Mexico.
  • Conserve the Red Knot through monitoring, habitat protection, and community outreach in the bird’s migratory stops in Brazil, Argentina, and Chile.
  • Study Swallow-tailed Kite migration and protect nine communal roosting sites in southern Brazil.
  • Develop educational projects for wetland and shorebird conservation in Argentina.
  • Work with land managers to preserve critical habitat, train and educate local people, and promote ecotourism for the conservation of migratory raptors and wading birds in the state of Veracruz, Mexico.

I’d say that was money well spent!  The short time in which many of these sites were started demonstrated the need for this act and its funding.  A further proof of the need for the NMBCA was offered at a recent American Birding Association convention.  A large map of the three North American countries (Canada, The USA, and Mexico) had been erected on one wall, and all the sites that monitored or studied birds in any way were marked on the map.  Both Canada and the USA were dusted with the green dots that designated a study site.  However, at the USA-Mexico border, all that changed.  Mexico was a large white area with next to no dots at all.  This severe lack of knowledge of an area that so many of the birds in the USA depend upon makes all the knowledge that has been accumulated in the U.S. only half useful.  More sites need to be setup in Mexico and southward if bird conservation is to continue and be successful.

As administrator, the Secretary of the Interior is tasked with developing guidelines for research.  The Secretary is also to encourage any project that is eligible for funding to submit a request for it.  Finally, the Secretary will select from among those proposals to determine which ones will receive funding from the NMBCA.  In the process of carrying out the NMBCA, the Secretary is to facilitate meetings among individuals from different conservation projects in different countries, and promote the exchange of information among them.  He/She will also develop agreements with foreign, state, and local governments, other federal agencies, and private organizations.  The Secretary is also able conduct other such activities as she considers appropriate to the enhancement of neotropical migratory birds.

Though the Secretary of the Interior has larger amounts of power over the enactment of the NMBCA, it is congress who is the final overseer of this Act.  In accordance with congresses wishes, at the end of each five year period that the act is funded for the Secretary is to make a report to congress.  These reports are to include the results and effectiveness of the programs carried out under the NMBCA, and recommendations on how the Act might be improved and if it should be continued.  These reports also include the important point of reinstating the act for another length of time to be determined at that point (usually five more years).

Many of the migratory bird species that Americans enjoy depend upon habitat south of our border.  The Neotropical Migratory Bird Conservation Act will work to restore and protect that habitat, and has placed the continuing survival of these birds on much firmer ground.


 1. IN Sportsman.  Neo-Tropical Migratory Bird Act Becomes Law.  Available at http://www.insportsman.com/inhunting/news/neotrpicalbirdact.htm Downloaded on 15-Nov-2002

2. Neotropical Migratory Bird Act.  U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service  International Affairs Division of International Conservation. April 2001.

3.  Ford, Bob. and Baicich, Paul J. Neotropical Migratory Bird Conservation Act: Matching Grant Funding Takes Major Step Forward. Winging It. October 2002.

4.  TITLE 16> CHAPTER 80> Sec. 6101-09.  Available at http://www4.law.cornell.edu/uscode/16/ch80.html.  Downloaded on 16-Nov-2002.

5. Winegrad, Gerald. $3 Million for Neotropical Migratory Bird Conservation.  Bird Calls.  December 2001.

6. Neotropical Migratory Bird Conservation Act of 2000.   Digest of Federal Resource Laws of Interest to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  Available at http://laws.fws.gov/lawsdigest/neotrop.html. Downloaded on 15-Nov-2002.

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I saw two male Orange-crowned Warblers (Oreothlypis celata) chasing one another through the yard this morning.  This is somewhat unusual at this time of year since these birds are in all likelihood wintering birds, and as such they should not be that interested in defending territory and such.  That will all start in about a month (at the earliest) here in central California when the earliest males will arrive for breeding in mid February and the bulk of the rest will arrive by mid March. So these males may have just been doing some practice competing.  Some halfhearted pursuing just to make sure they have not lost the edge they will need again soon.

Of the four subspecies that are widely agreed upon in this species, the one we have here is O. c. lutescens.  It is a coastal subspecies that breeds from Alaska to southern California and winters from northern California to Baja California.  That places central California in the happy position of being in the overlap where we can see Orange-cornwed Warblers all year long.  I hope that is the case here in my specific neighborhood.

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For the last two weeks of 2012 and the first week of 2013, we have been treated to impressive event around our condo in West Sacramento, CA.  The sycamore trees that grow in the area all dropped their seeds.  It began quite suddenly with humdreds of little seeds covering the sidewalks in our neighborhood.  The trees that are right outside our front door were the first trees to start dropping thier seeds, and the trees across the street started about a week later.  One of the most dramatic outcomes of this sudden seed fall are all the birds that have arrived to eat the seeds.  A very large flock of American Goldfinches showed up and spent their days draped over the spiky round fruits pulling ripened seeds before they fell.  An only slightly smaller flock of House Finches have spent their time hooping around in the grass and walking along the sidewalks picking up the seeds that have fallen to the ground.  With them are a group of a 40 Mourning Doves that doing the same.  At times, birds crowd together on the ground under the trees seeking food.

2013-01-04 00.15.57           2013-01-04 00.15.36

Mourning Doves, House Finches, and American Goldfinches eating fallen sycamore seeds out of the grasses.

One of the most impressive aspects of this event was how synchronized it was.  In a three week period, all the sycamore trees in the area dropped all their seeds.  What was the trigger?  Was it some specific weather pattern?  Was it simply the calendar time of year?  Is there some signal that passes between individual trees that can be used to coordinate reproduction (hormones secreted into the soil perhaps)?

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