May 9, 2018 by Samantha Knight And Ryan Norris, The Conversation
With the arrival of spring, we look forward to the return of hundreds of species of migratory songbirds from their wintering grounds.
Sparrows, swallows, warblers and thrushes, among other songbirds, will be returning from their wintering sites anywhere between the southern United States and distant South America.
Some of these birds will return with a small "backpack" that has recorded their entire migration from their North American breeding grounds to their wintering grounds and back.
Birds provide important ecosystem services, such as preying on insects, dispersing seeds, scavenging carcasses and pollinating plants. Unfortunately, there have been dramatic declines in many migratory songbirds over the past few decades, with some of these populations dropping by more than 80 per cent.
If we are to find ways to slow or reverse these declines, we must first figure out what's causing them. Climate change, habitat loss and predation by cats are among the leading causes of bird declines.
But with the vast distances these birds move over the course of the year, it can be difficult to pinpoint the main cause for a given species —and where it's occurring.
To answer this question, we need to know where individual birds spend their time throughout the year.
We have a good idea of the range —or the total area —the birds occupy during the breeding and wintering periods. But ranges are composed of many populations, and we still have a very poor understanding of how individuals within each of these populations are connected between seasons.
Individuals from different breeding populations may remain segregated during the winter. For example, some ovenbirds winter in the Caribbean whereas others spend their winters in Mexico and Central America.