Biologists in Mexico and U.S. Collect and Share Data In Bi-National Effort to Protect the Americas’ Migrating Birds

When cooler weather slides over the Northern Hemisphere, hundreds of bird species around the world set their sights southward. In the United States and Canada, shorebirds, songbirds, and even tiny hummingbirds take to the skies starting in September, and about 250 species will eventually fly as far south as Mexico, Central and South America, and the Caribbean.

But very few will bypass Mexico. In fact, nearly 95 percent will either stop to rest and refuel there before continuing their journey or just stay put in the country’s forests, wetlands, and miles of coastline. These are facts known to ornithologists, but less understood is which areas of Mexico’s wildlands are most important to these birds and which ecosystems are most at risk from such threats as tourism, logging, and agricultural expansion. In a project called Linking Mexico’s Key Regions and Sites for Neotropical Migratory Birds of Conservation Concern, biologists with Mexico’s National Biodiversity Commission, the National Autonomous University, the North America Bird Conservation Initiative, and the conservation group Pronatura Chiapas are collaborating with those at Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society in the United States to identify critical areas for the protection of migratory birds.

“We plan to identify critical habitats and high priority species throughout Mexico and use this information to better understand which need to be conserved first,” explains Humberto Berlanga, project coordinator. “This information will be released as soon as possible.”

So far, 240 regions that conservationists call “Important Bird Areas” have been identified in Mexico, ranging from the lagoons of Chacahua National Park in southern Mexico, where hundreds of thousands of waterfowl gather; the dry forests of Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve in the Yucatán, the winter homes for huge flocks of songbirds; and the Sierra de Manantlán Biosphere Reserve in central-western Mexico, a refuge for thousands of migratory eagles, hawks, and other birds of prey. Project staff are diligently drawing up an exhaustive list of bird species for each priority site, drawing information from more than 200 scientists who have been conducting research in these areas.

The project’s second phase began in September 2006 and will focus research on those areas where migratory bird congregations have been identified and digitized on the maps available on NatureServe, a Web site that provides biological data from around the world.

“Lists need to be accurate and up-to-date to be able to identify the most important areas for Neotropical bird conservation in both the United States and Mexico,” says Berlanga. “This project is determining what species are endangered, what sites are vital for certain species, and the areas where species cluster and for what reason. The data will help define conservation strategies, such as establishing new protected areas and conservation easements for privately owned wildlands, and for local residents, environmental education programs, and economic options that can reduce or mitigate the impact of farming and harvesting.”

Southern Mexico is particularly critical for migratory birds because it’s where the country narrows sharply, like a funnel. In order to stay over land, birds converge, and each remaining forest or wetland area is vitally important for their survival. If the migratory birds can not stop to rest or stay in an ecosystem that can provide them with food, water or shelter, they are likely to perish.

In the southern Mexico state of Chiapas, biologists with the conservation group Pronatura Chiapas are participating in the project by studying migratory birds in the El Triunfo Biosphere Reserve, one of the few remaining cloud forests in the country. The 295,000-acre reserve is important habitat for endangered and endemic bird species. According to Pronatura’s Claudia Macías, the project has been extended to the Pacific coastal plains, the Madre de Chiapas mountain range, the dry forests of the Central Depression, an area near the border with Guatemala, and the mountains in the north and east of Chiapas, which contain large stands of pine-oak forests.

“Our over-riding goal is to develop a conservation plan for threatened ecosystems in Chiapas that represent critical habitat for the conservation of migratory birds and other species of flora and fauna,” Macías explains.

The organization is also establishing alliances with local, regional, and international organizations to ensure the conservation of disappearing habitats such as pine-oak forests, which are found from Mexico to Nicaragua and are critical wintering habitat for such migratory bird species as the highly endangered golden-cheeked warbler (Dendroica chrysoparia). This bird is a true Texas native. It nests only in the central part of the state and migrates in the winter to southern Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras.

Berlanga is anticipating that by the end of 2007, all the collected migratory bird species data will be widely accessible on Web sites, databases, digital maps, books, and CDs. More importantly, he hopes all the information will actually be used by scientists and policy makers to help ensure skies over the Americas will fill twice a year with the wings and calls of migrating birds.

Contacts: Humberto Berlanga, Mexico, tel +52-55/5528-9176, fax +52-55/5528-9185,,, Claudia Macías, Pronatura Chiapas, tel/fax +52-961/611-3893,,

More About This Project


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