The Song in Its Soul


It is seldom easy to hear. 

A missing note can be still harder to detect. 

Even in a forest.

According to a 2019 article in the magazine Science, North America has 30% fewer birds than in the 1970s. That’s a loss of 3 billion birds. Even common birds such as sparrows and blackbirds are in decline. Forests bristling with the chorus of avian life have slipped out of harmony incrementally, imperceptibly. 

The news about songbirds has not been easy to hear 

A bird can be weightlessly cradled in the palm of our hand. This fragile element of nature leverages a quickened metabolism against expansive geography in migrations spanning thousands of miles. It is particularly vulnerable when stretched to its physical limit on seasonal migrations. This feat of athleticism ends abruptly in the absence of nutrition. Birds also encounter risks to reproduction and survival in breeding grounds and in wintering grounds.

During migrations, birds adhere to the same flight path. They rely on the trail followed by their ancestors generation by generation. And they can occasionally be challenged to navigate a changing landscape.

The journey, like a long car trip, relies on predictable refueling stops. Without periodic rest areas, their voyage will be curtailed. Stopover points offer essential nourishment. 

If a rest stop is closed, the avian migration ends. Period. There is no second chance. No do over. No orange-coned detour. No alternate route. No roadside assistance. The songbird has one chance to get it right. Restful stopovers with ample food are indispensable. Otherwise, silence. 

Migratory corridors and stopover sites for small songbirds have been difficult to identify. The birds fleetingly drift through, seldom alighting long enough to be counted. On the other hand, breeding grounds and overwintering grounds are comparatively easy to monitor. Birds settle in for the season. There, they can be identified, observed and tallied. The inability to gather solid data on stopover points for songbirds has hampered efforts to preserve this essential geography. 

Funding for a flight path resembling I-75 from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to southern Florida is not likely. And even if a single path could be protected for a single species or a suite of similar species, other flight paths would remain at risk. The protection of multiple, sprawling flight paths resides well beyond the art of the possible. Stopover points would be easier to protect. 

Weighty tracking systems with battery packs have been harnessed to large birds. They produce vital data on flight patterns and stopovers. This technology, however, is of no avail to researchers of smaller birds comprising the greater proportion of avian migration. 

New technology promises new hope. 

Recently, so-called nanotags have enabled even small songbirds to be tracked. A nanotag is minuscule. Weighing one-fifth of a paperclip, it can be secured unobtrusively to the backs of our smallest feathered friends. Nanotags are just now enabling the tracking of small songbirds, and their elusive stopover points are for the first time coming into view. 

This is a game changer. 

Nanotag technology places philanthropy on the cusp of a new strategy. With data derived from nanotags, philanthropic funding can now be targeted with precision on the conservation of defined stopovers, essential refueling stations, and biological linchpins. 

Coordination among ornithology, land trusts, and philanthropy awaits. This collaboration will optimize funding like never before; perhaps in the nick of time. 

Even land trusts serving small areas or regional watersheds can now play a vital role in international and transcontinental migrations. The national and international players in land conservation have always had bird migrations in their purview. But never before have small land trusts been able to play such a prominent role on the national and international stage. With data derived from nanotags, the small land trusts collectively become active participants in securing a flight path far beyond their jurisdiction. 

This opportunity to preserve songbirds becomes even more affordable with the use of conservation easements. Under a conservation easement, title to the land is not purchased. Rather, only the right to preserve a specific habitat is secured. The landowner continues to own the land while committing to preserve the habitat associated with a stopover. The cost for a land trust to acquire a conservation easement is far less than the cost of title to the land. Conservation easement donations are also incentivized by tax deductions.  

Rules for the art of the possible in service of a fragile and beloved gift of nature have changed. Philanthropy is perched on the frontier of a shared adventure with ornithology and strategic land conservation. 

This isn’t exactly about the forest; it’s about the song in its soul. 

John Rohe practiced law in Michigan, with an emphasis on land and habitat conservation, for three decades before joining Colcom Foundation in 2006. His educational background is in engineering and law.

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