By Andrew Robey, Education Intern
The state of Florida lies along the southern end of the Atlantic Flyway which is a highly used bird migratory route that extends from northeast Canada south to the Caribbean. In the southern portion of the flyway, a major stopping point for many species during their migration is in South Florida.
Many of these migratory bird species remain here for the winter and rely on the unique diversity of wildlife and habitats in order to survive. Many other migratory birds that don’t reside in South Florida for the winter also rely on Florida’s tropical ecosystems as a rest and refueling stop before continuing on to the Caribbean or across the Gulf of Mexico. These birds will spend the winter in Central or South America.
However, this has caused an unfortunate conflict between people and the avian species that reside here.
One major conflict is land development that results in the disturbance, fragmentation, and destruction of vital habitat for many species of migratory birds that can be found in south Florida throughout the year. This can also lead to the creation of an ecological trap.
An ecological trap occurs when an animal prefers an unsuitable habitat over a suitable one.
For many birds in South Florida, ecological traps are caused by an overabundance of invasive plants. Many of these invasive plants are generalists and can easily establish large populations in habitats that may not be suitable for many native plant species. These invasives can also out-compete many of the native plants for space and resources. The result is that invasive plants can create an area that is visually enticing to a bird through the presence of possible food or shelter, even though the number or quality of resources necessary for the bird to thrive and reproduce successfully may not be present.
An example of an ecological trap is the invasive Brazilian pepper plant.
Brazilian pepper was brought into Florida in the mid-1800’s as an ornamental plant, but soon established itself as an invasive plant by the 1950’s. This invasive provides shelter for migratory birds, but its berries lack the necessary nutrients for birds to survive. Species that often fall victim to these traps are the many different small songbirds that either spend the winter in South Florida or use it as a stopping point before journeying further south. Many of these small songbirds rely on heavily wooded areas and feed on insects, small fruits, and seeds that are being depleted due to increased human developments.
Another effect of land development in south Florida on migratory bird species is the increase in habitat fragmentation.
Habitat fragmentation is when large expanses of habitat are divided by impassible or unsuitable habitat.
This increase in habitat fragmentation can have a major effect on migratory birds by not providing them places to rest during their migrations. One solution that can be used to prevent habitat fragmentation is through the development and protection of wildlife corridors.
A wildlife corridor is a piece of land that allows animals to move freely and safely from one area of suitable habitat to another. However, a wildlife corridor for a migratory bird is going to appear very different than one for a terrestrial mammal. Often times for migratory birds, what is needed are small areas of protected land and native plants that will provide shelter, food, and rest along their migration route before they continue on to their final destinations.
What Can We Do?
There are many things that can be done to reduce threats to the many migratory birds that stop in South Florida during the spring, fall, and winter months.
Removing non-native and invasive plants and replanting with native ones is one such initiative. By planting native gardens, you can provide safe resting areas and nutritional food sources for migratory birds.
This can not only help prevent birds from falling into an ecological trap, but it also helps create wildlife corridors.
Another thing that can be done to help our birds is installing a nesting box. This provides both temporary shelter for migrating birds as well as a safe place for birds to raise their young.
Contribute to Science
Another fun and helpful activity that can be done is contributing to community science programs such as eBird, the Great Backyard Bird Count, or a winter bird count. This helps provide biologists with valuable information regarding where and when birds are migrating, as well as how land development and the introduction of invasive species may be affecting bird populations.
South Florida and the many species that call it home have all felt the impacts of continued land development and human population growth.
Although it may seem like there is little people can do to help on a large scale, even little things can help when it pertains to conservation.
Learning about what the various threats are to native wildlife and what can be done to help is the first step to take. A great way to learn more is by exploring our interactive exhibits at the newly renovated Dalton Discovery Center and John and Carol Walter Discovery Wing! Located in Naples, Florida.
If interested in our internship program and taking the leap to live and work in Southwest Florida for a few months, head to our internship opportunities. The experiences you gain and the knowledge you learn here at the Conservancy is simply rewarding.
Blewett, C. M., & Marzluff, J. M. (2005). Effects Of Urban Sprawl On Snags And The Abundance And Productivity Of Cavity-Nesting Birds. The Condor, 107(3), 678. doi: 10.1650/0010-5422(2005)107[0678:eousos]2.0.co;2
Krams, Ronalds et al. “Ecological traps: evidence of a fitness cost in a cavity-nesting bird.” Oecologia vol. 196,3 (2021): 735-745. doi:10.1007/s00442-021-04969-w