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Vol. 17  No. 21 Final Edition
Clovis Free Press
Missing Song Birds
Welcome Guests Soon Fly Far Away
By Edward Davidian, Staff Writer
The Clovis Free Press
     CLOVIS -- The familiar songbirds that build their nests in our yards and trees and meadows are the most watched, and probably the most beloved of all wild creatures. They are also among the most traveled, and therefore shared, for most of them spend their allotted years shuttling back and forth between their summer and winter homes, often following long-established flight paths that take them over thousands of miles of land and water.
     The migratory songbirds found in North America include roughly 350 species, of which about 250, known as Neotropical migrants,  spend their winters in the New World tropics of southern Mexico, Central and South America, and the West Indies. The other 100 species, called short-distance migrants,  winter chiefly in the southern U.S., particularly along the Gulf Coast. Migratory songbirds can be found in virtually every habitat on the continent, and usually half or more of the breeding birds in any sampled area are migratory. In some northern forests, for example, less than 10 percent of the songbirds present in the summer remain throughout the year: the rest winter in places far away.
     Migratory songbirds play a major role in the health and functioning of ecosystems, as consumers of insects (especially those that defoliate trees), dispersers of seeds, and pollinators of flowers. They are also of considerable value to regional economies. When forest birds eat insects, the result is greater tree growth and a longer period between insect outbreaks -- services that may be worth as much as $5000 per year for each square mile of forest land. Millions of people watch birds as a hobby and many of them flock to areas where birds concentrate, where they spend millions of dollars on ecotourism.
     In the spring of the year, mostly from March through May, migrants abandon their wintering grounds, fly northward in the dark of night over several thousand miles, and spread out over the North American continent, where the warming weather and the emergence of new leaves provides vast quantities of insects. When summer ends and autumn comes, the declining supply of insects drives them south again. The nonmigratory species that remain are limited by harsh winters and food that is much harder to find.
     To live in both the temperate and tropical worlds and to find sufficient food during their long and often intercontinental flights, migrants must be flexible opportunists. Some territorial species that consume nothing but insects during the breeding season, such as orioles and kingbirds, are in winter -- where most of us never see them -- gregarious consumers of fruit and nectar. In the twice-a- year transformation they switch from carnivores to vegetarians.
    Such adaptability should place migratory songbirds among the least vulnerable of all animals to the major changes in land-use and wildlife habitat that accompany human activities. To some degree this seems to be the case, for most of them have global populations that are estimated in the millions or tens of millions. Some especially abundant species, such as the Red-eyed Vireo and Blackpoll Warbler, may number in the hundreds of millions.
     During the Spring and Fall migratory periods, migrants concentrate in huge numbers in tree-covered Clovis City parks where, for a few weeks, the diversity of birds can rival that found in tropical forests. It is in part this spectacle of abundance, plus their phenomenal ability to navigate at night -- using the stars and the Earth's magnetic field -- that makes migratory songbirds so intriguing to bird watchers and the public at large. Watching large flocks of dozens of species of migratory songbirds pass through the backyard of my own home in Clovis solidified my own lifelong interest in birds
Letter to the Editor

© 2000 Clovis Free Press. All rights reserved.


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