May is an explosive month. As the landscape greens up and trees and flowers blossom, there is an explosion of worms, spiders and insects. And right on their heels are migratory birds — species that travel from one place to another at regular times, often over long distances.

Many migratory birds nest in the northern United States, Canada and the Arctic. Because these birds eat insects or food that aren’t available in winter, they migrate to southern states, South and Central America, Mexico and the Caribbean in the winter. When spring returns to North America, so do the birds as they follow their food to their breeding grounds.

Most long-distance migratory songbirds and shorebirds migrate at night when the air is cooler and calmer and predators are few. Birds that fly by soaring, like hawks and vultures, migrate by day when the sun’s rays produce rising air currents for them to glide on. Swallows, swifts and nighthawks also migrate by day because they eat flying insects that are active at that time.

Because of their striking presence, beauty, variety and song, birds are often among the first wildlife people notice. They enrich our lives and the loss of bird populations would immeasurably diminish the quality of life for the U.S. public. Birds have intrinsic value in the Earth’s ecology as pollinators, predators and prey. Many of the habitats that support thriving bird populations also support populations of other types of wildlife.

Birds and bird-related activities have a significant economic impact. People who purchase bird food and bird-feeding equipment, stay in hotels and travel to go birding, bird hunting or attend birding festivals, help to create thousands of jobs and generate millions of dollars in tax revenue.

Here are statistics on U.S. birding from the 2011 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting and Wildlife-Associated Recreation:

  • 46.7 million Americans enjoy watching and feeding birds.
  • $107 billion is spent on bird-related equipment and travel in the United States.
  • 17.8 million Americans travel to see birds, putting millions of dollars into local economies.
  • Birding results in $13 billion in local, state and federal tax revenue.
  • Birding creates 666,000 jobs.
  • 2.6 million Americans hunt migratory birds.
  • $1.8 billion is spent on migratory bird hunting in the United States. This includes $866 million spent on equipment and $942 million spent on trips.

Birds are sensitive to environmental contaminants and can provide an early warning of oncoming environmental issues. Birds and people both rely on healthy habitats — oceans, grasslands and forests — for survival and well-being. Healthy habitats for birds translate into improved water quality, coastal buffering, groundwater recharge, flood control, erosion protection and many other benefits. Migratory birds contribute important environmental benefits, including pollination, disease and pest control, carrion disposal and seed dispersal.

Migratory birds face numerous threats from both natural and human-caused sources. Millions of acres of bird habitat are lost or degraded every year from development, agriculture and forestry practices. These birds depend on suitable breeding and wintering grounds and stopover sites where they can rest and feed along their migratory routes. The loss of any site used by birds could have a dramatic impact on their chances of survival.

In addition, millions of birds are directly killed by human-related causes such as poaching, collisions with man-made structures, or entanglement and entrapment in open pipes and nets.

Natural threats include predation by cats and other animals; weather events, starvation, disease and landscapes altered by a changing climate.

Everyone can help protect migratory birds. Take actions around your home or workplace, design bird-friendly projects, or just take actions that reduce resource consumption.

Every action is one step toward protecting migratory birds for future generations. A few simple activities include:

  • Participate in citizen science bird monitoring programs like eBird, Breeding Bird Survey, Christmas Bird Counts and Urban Bird Treaties.
  • Reduce the risk of bird/glass collisions at home or the office.
  • Keep cats indoors
  • Support habitat conservation and create wildlife habitat around your home or school.
  • Reduce the use of chemicals in the environment.
  • Attend a bird event to find out more.

Conserving birds protects our U.S. landscapes and the economy and way of life for those who depend on them. Migratory birds connect people to nature and provide multiple benefits — ecological, economic, aesthetic and recreational — to people and the natural environment. We all benefit when birds thrive.

Migratory Bird Treaty Centennial

This year is the centennial of the Migratory Bird Treaty. In 1916, the United States and Great Britain (on behalf of Canada) adopted a system of protection for nearly all migratory birds that inhabit — and often migrate between — the United States and Canada. The United States signed the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in 1918, formally implementing its commitment to the 1916 treaty and three subsequent international conventions with Mexico (1936), Japan (1972) and Russia (1976) for the protection of migratory birds. Migratory birds fly over long distances, often crossing international borders and entering different areas with varying environmental policies. National and international cooperation is essential for conserving and protecting the world’s migratory birds.