News Story

Carleton Scientist Leads Team Proposing Optimal Conservation Plan for Migratory Birds

Carleton University’s Richard Schuster and a team of researchers published a new paper in the journal Nature Communications. The paper provides a blueprint for conserving enough habitat to protect the populations of almost one-third of the warblers, orioles, tanagers and other birds that migrate through the Americas.

For the research, the international team of scientists used the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s global citizen science database, eBird, to calculate how to sufficiently conserve habitat across the Western Hemisphere for all the habitats these birds use for breeding, migration and overwintering. The study provides planners with guidance on the location and amount of lands that must be conserved for 30 per cent of the global populations for each of 117 Neotropical migratory bird species.

“We are excited to be the first to use a data-driven approach that identifies the most critical places for bird conservation,” said Schuster, postdoctoral fellow at Carleton and lead author on the paper. “In doing so, we provide guidance on where, when and what type of habitat should be conserved to sustain populations. This is a vital step if conservationists are to make the best use of limited resources and address the most critical problems at a hemispheric scale.”

More than a third of Neotropical migratory birds are suffering population declines, yet a 2015 global assessment found that only nine per cent of migratory bird species have adequate habitat protection. Conservation of migratory birds has historically been difficult, partly because they require habitat across continents and conservation efforts have been challenged by limited knowledge of their abundance and distribution over vast ranges throughout the year.

“Many bird populations are crashing, largely because they migrate such long distances and are at risk from human influence at every link of their migratory chain,” said Carleton’s Joseph Bennett, professor in the Institute of Environmental Science and Department of Biology. “Some of these crashing species are close to my heart – like the bobolinks and meadowlarks I used to listen to when I was a kid on the family farm.”

The team’s analysis found that conservation strategies were most efficient when they incorporated working lands, such as agriculture or forestry, rather than exclusively focusing on areas with limited human impact. The importance of shared-use or working landscapes to migratory birds underscores how strategic conservation can accommodate both human livelihoods and biodiversity. The research also found that efficiency was greatest—requiring 56 per cent less land—when planning across the entire year in full, rather than separately by week.

The international team involved with this project was comprised of scientists from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Carleton University, University of British Columbia, and Environment and Climate Change Canada.