Partners in North American Migratory Songbird Conservation

November 2017



By Sara Hallager, Mike Kreger and Tom Schneider

North American migratory songbirds are some of the most familiar wildlife to Americans and they connect us to nature.  They are visible in our cities, suburban areas and rural areas.  Some of the largest population centers, vacation destinations, zoos and aquariums are in migratory bird flyways. What better way to introduce guests to saving wildlife than to teach them to preserve familiar species that they see in their own backyards and have the ability to protect? There are many simple ways for zoo and aquarium visitors to make a difference and help save North American songbirds.

North American songbirds are in decline. BirdLife International (2008) reports over half of neotropical migratory songbirds have suffered widespread declines over the last 40 years. Major threats include habitat loss and degradation, predation by domestic and feral cats, and collisions with buildings and towers. More recently, pesticides (e.g. neonicotinoids) are recognized as detrimental to songbirds.  

Zoos and aquariums are well positioned to contribute towards North American songbird conservation through a variety of means such as outreach and education, conservation breeding, and science and research. Zoos and aquariums can also be hubs for landowner outreach and expanded citizen science efforts. Partnering across diverse sectors, these collaborations build the scale and scope necessary to grow the long-term sustainability of threatened songbird species. The time has come for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums-accredited facilities of North America to step-up their activities and influences to ensure a future for western hemisphere migratory songbirds.

Outreach and Education: AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums offer a unique opportunity to educate guests on the threats and solutions for conserving migratory songbird populations. Perhaps more than any other bird-oriented organizations, zoos and aquariums reach broad and diverse audiences that may not already be familiar with bird conservation issues and actions. Among the messages zoos and aquariums may convey are actions they can take to improve songbird survival. We can encourage and guide consumer actions such as purchasing bird-friendly coffee to preserve neotropical bird wintering grounds, selecting grass-fed beef to help save grassland birds, and purchasing certified sustainable paper products to help preserve the nesting grounds of boreal forest songbirds. Other actions include keeping pet cats indoors and landscaping for pollinators.

Baltimore Orioles © Eric Peterson, Utah's Hogle Zoo

Zoos and aquariums can adopt operational practices that help reduce threats. For example, they can reduce their evening lighting during peak migratory seasons and/or install bird-friendly window treatments. Glass strikes kill an estimated 1 billion birds each year in the United States and nearly half of the collisions happen at residential homes.  Easy to apply window applications and proper placement of bird feeders are two quick and effective means to eliminate bird collisions at homes. These actions provide opportunities to guests to make a difference for local wildlife. If you would like more information on bird friendly glass at your facility, please contact Bonnie Van Dam at or Shane Good at  ‎

International Migratory Bird Day highlights and celebrates the migration of nearly 350 species of migratory birds between nesting habitats in North America and non-breeding grounds in Latin America, Mexico, and the Caribbean. Many AZA-accredited facilities celebrate International Migratory Bird Day with interactive exhibits, bird banding demonstrations and special events to introduce visitors to North American songbirds. Events like these show visitors that birds are an important part of our world and help demonstrate why birds matter. If you would like more information on IMBD, please contact Kelly Vineyard or Anne Tieber

Conservation Breeding and Science:  As experts in husbandry, reproductive biology, nutrition, wildlife health, population management, physiology and welfare, AZA zoos and aquariums offer specialized expertise and skills to aid in the recovery of threatened and endangered songbird populations. For example, AZA facilities already play a key role in breeding, studying, genetically managing, and reintroducing North American songbirds such as the loggerhead shrike and the Florida grasshopper sparrow. Additionally, some AZA zoos are participating in a North American songbird initiative led by the Conservation Centers for Species Survival (C2S2), which seeks to grow connectivity between ex situ and in situ populations of songbirds through a One Plan Approach. The loggerhead shrike is a C2S2 songbird priority species and a model for this larger songbird initiative.

Zoo-based North American songbirds have been  used in research, some of which is directly applicable to in situ conservation. For example, the National Zoo’s song sparrow colony was used in research investigating the bill as a thermoregulatory organ and a captive colony of wood thrush helped researchers understand the importance of food availability on the non-breeding grounds to breeding success. By establishing native songbird populations in managed care and working to understand the needs of migratory birds, zoos and aquariums are able to offer assistance to populations in decline. These populations can assist avian researchers by providing models for rare species, understanding avian health, life history, and testing potential field methods.

Migratory American Songbird Helpers (MASH) initiative: Recognizing that North American songbirds are a conservation priority, the AZA Passerine Taxon Advisory Group recently approved the formation of the North American Songbird Working Group. The Working Group’s MASH initiative is coordinated by  the group’s members who promote North American songbird conservation in zoos and aquariums by: 1) Partnering with in situ organizations to enhance conservation of species in the wild, 2) Serving as technical advisors to programs seeking guidance on North American songbirds managed in human care; 3) Promoting and supporting International Migratory Bird Day in AZA zoos and aquariums; 4)  Promoting glass strike prevention in zoos and aquariums 5) Promoting and establishing North American songbird husbandry; 6) Establishing best practices for wild bird acquisition and 7) Promoting zoo and aquarium involvement in North American songbird conservation. For more information on MASH, contact Sara Hallager at   

Urban Bird Treaty: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service established the Urban Bird Treaty in 1999 to bring together partners to promote bird conservation, create bird friendly habitats, and engage with citizens to connect them with nature through bird education, recreation, and conservation. Partners include federal, state and local governments, non-governmental organizations, and academic institutions in each of the 29 cities currently designated as an Urban Bird Treaty city. One important feature of the Urban Bird Treaty is to engage citizens, especially young people, in appreciating birds and in protecting and restoring habitats in urban environments, such as local parks, schools, and backyards, while providing career development and natural resources jobs.

Roxanne Bogart, Urban Bird Treaty national coordinator at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said, The Urban Bird Treaty program is creating opportunities throughout the country for urban residents to learn about and take part in on-the-ground activities such as riparian restoration, bird monitoring, and creating bird-safe buildings to make their urban environments as bird-friendly as possible, which is especially important for spring and fall migrating birds.”  

The Urban Bird Treaty program is creating opportunities throughout the country for urban residents to learn about and take part in on-the-ground activities such as riparian restoration, bird monitoring, and creating bird-safe buildings to make their urban environments as bird-friendly as possible, which is especially important for spring and fall migrating birds.”  

The Detroit Zoological Society is a founding member of the Metro Detroit Nature Network, which nominated Detroit for Urban Bird Treaty designation.  In May 2017, Detroit was designated as the 29th Urban Bird Treaty City.  The goal of this partnership is to identify important issues facing migratory and resident birds in the seven-county Metro Detroit area and develop priority actions that the partnership can undertake over the next five years.  A number of other AZA-accredited facilities work on Urban Bird Treaty initiatives in other Urban Bird Treaty cities such as Chicago and Baltimore. As the number of Urban Bird Treaty cities increases, so will the opportunities for zoos and aquariums to join these urban partnerships and engage residents in these bird-related conservation and citizen science programs.  In the long run, this will build connected citizens in urban areas to help ensure the future of native birds. More information on the Urban Bird Treaty program can be found at or by contacting Tom Schneider at

Conservation Partnerships: Many AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums already recognize the importance of educating guests on native North American bird species and incorporate this message in their outreach programs and daily messaging.  The next step is to promote native songbirds in collections, demonstrate the value that zoos and aquariums can offer conservationists working with native songbirds and harness the power of working together to save our songbirds. Zoos and aquariums can play a role in monitoring local bird populations through monitoring stations. For example, Bird Studies Canada supports Motus towers—a coordinated Western hemisphere tracking network for migratory songbird species ( These affordable systems help researchers study North American songbird migratory behavior. In turn, zoos and aquariums can use the data to educate visitors about North American bird conservation. Some zoos are starting to install Motus towers on grounds and collect data.

Join the zoos already working to save North American songbirds and add your voice to the flock of dedicated individuals working to save our songbirds.

Sara Hallager is the curator of birds at the Smithsonian National Zoological Park.

Dr. Mike Kreger is the vice president of conservation at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium.

Tom Schneider is the curator of birds at the Detroit Zoological Society.




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