What Does Land Conservation Mean for Migratory Birds?

By Stephanie Ellis, Executive Director, Wild Care, Inc. (Eastham)

Land Conservation – What Does it Mean?

To humans, it has many meanings.

Land conservation is the preservation of our open spaces and natural resources for future generations. It is the preservation of the earth’s beauty, ensuring that our air, water and land are clean, and pesticide free. Land conservation is setting aside a place for both recreation and reflection, and providing a sacred space where our native flora and fauna can live in their natural state.

But what does land conservation mean for wildlife?

For wildlife, land conservation is often a matter of life or death. Wildlife relies heavily on our natural resources and open spaces – for food, nesting, breeding, safety, and a respite from the elements. Land conservation takes on even further meaning when we consider birds…especially our long-distance migrants.

Consider the Tree Swallow, a species that breeds abundantly in New England. This species favors flooded swamps, but also breeds in open fields, meadows, and marshes. Tree Swallows utilize trees and dead snags for nesting and roosting (hence their name) and rely heavily on woodpeckers and other species to excavate and abandon tree cavities, in which the swallows can raise their own young. The lack of available tree cavities has led to major shifts in Tree Swallow migration, with earlier spring arrival to ensure that a “hard-to-come-by” nest site is secured.

Tree Swallows that nest along the Atlantic Coast winter primarily in Florida and along the Gulf of Mexico, with some populations wintering into Mexico and Northern Central America. Swallows wintering as far as Cuba will travel over 1,500 miles to reach their southerly winter destination. Tree Swallows travel during the day, gathering in large roosts at night, in flocks of up to hundreds of thousands of birds. Critical stopover sites include reeds and cane beds, trees and telephone wires. These roosting sites are an integral part of their journey, and are visited year after year. They are important locations for resting and foraging, as the swallows continue along their migratory path.

The Tree Swallow is known to be one of the hardiest swallow species, yet due to habitat loss and climate change, Tree Swallows are expected to begin a trend breeding farther north and farther inland. According to the National Audubon Society’s Climate Change Model, a northward spread will require more nest boxes provided by people or an abundance of standing dead trees.

Though tree swallows are common and widespread throughout their ranges, they are declining in abundance. Loss and degradation of habitat on both their breeding and wintering grounds is thought to play a major role in the decline of this species. In western North America, Tree Swallow abundance is directly linked to the number of dead snags available for breeding. Furthermore, a decrease in habitat often means a decrease or changes in local food availability.

Loss and degradation of wetlands (and pollution) can have long-lasting repercussions on Tree Swallows as well. Tree Swallow abundance is indicative of wetland health, and can be used to inform management of wetland areas.

Furthermore, because of their common association with these riparian and marsh ecosystems, Tree Swallows are often at risk of exposure to a number of aquatic contaminants. When accumulated in a high degree, these contaminants have been linked to a decrease in reproductive success. Tree Swallows, it seems, can’t catch a break.

Local Tree Swallow populations can be increased however, by providing artificial nest boxes. Even so, nest box trails have been estimated to provide nest sites for only about 2% of the global Tree Swallow population (National Audubon Society 2010). Though nest boxes are important to maintaining and restoring Tree Swallow populations, it is simply not enough to counterbalance the loss of natural tree sites during the past 200 years.

Can you imagine traveling hundreds of miles to your breeding location, only to find that it no longer exists? Birds may then be forced to travel farther north or inland in search of nest sites, and appropriate foraging habitat. Weather may not be cooperative, yielding low food availability or harsh conditions. New nest sites may never be found. Many will perish on this unexpected journey.

Every phase of a Tree Swallow’s lifecycle is critically dependent on habitat. From its spring migration north, to the migratory stops along the way, to the long fall journey south. Along the way, birds encounter the same dilemma – degradation and loss of habitat. A sobering thought: This is just representative of a single species of the potentially 8.7 million species of animals on this planet facing similar circumstances. This is a single species of which its entire existence depends on the land.

Habitat loss is the number one reason for bird declines globally. According to the American Bird Conservancy, 12% of 4,230 bird species are headed for extinction in our lifetime without immediate conservation action. With so many birds and other wildlife in decline, isn’t it our responsibility to find effective ways to save their habitats? The answer is yes, and time is of the essence.

“Hope is the thing with feathers”… Emily Dickinson

It’s not too late. There are many things you can do to help.

Open spaces and natural resources can be preserved in perpetuity by donating them to local organizations like the Barnstable Land Trust. You can also start by preserving your own backyard. Create a native garden that attracts an abundance of wildlife year-round. Set up nest boxes in your backyard to provide “homes” for breeding and roosting birds. Leave areas “wild,” and reserve tree trimming and pruning to the late fall and winter months when animals are not nesting. Leave your dead snags and brush piles. Set aside “no disturb” zones in your backyard, providing a safe space for wildlife to live out their daily lives. Last but not least, engage in your local Audubon Society and local conservation trust land preservation initiatives.

Ensuring that land is preserved for generations to come is critical. We are all ambassadors and our actions can make a positive difference for wildlife. Only through our conscious efforts to reduce our large footprint can we pave the way for their smaller ones, and ultimately pave the way towards a healthier planet for all.

The Tree Swallow information found in this blog was largely captured from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s “Birds of North America” online series.


Tree Swallows are aerial insectivores during the summer, feeding on insects such as flies, beetles and moths. During fall migration, they feed on insects and Bayberries (Wax Myrtle, Myrica sp.) and other vegetable matter when insect abundance is low. Birds that linger, or find themselves wintering near the North Atlantic coast have been known to subsist on Bayberries. Lack of suitable habitat combined with climate change, alter food availability, forcing swallows to move to new locations.