Shorebirds struggle to make 10,000-mile trek

Sean Hubbard OSU communications
Shorebirds are struggling to find wetlands in middle America. Oklahoma State University

STILLWATER — Pack your bags. You are joining up with a group of shorebirds on the nearly 10,000-mile, one-way trip from the southern tip of South America to Alaska.

It will take a couple months to go from their winter homes in the south all the way up to their breeding grounds in the Arctic. Timing is essential. Get there too early, or too late, and a myriad of complications could arise.

The birds are programmed with the locations of all their favorite refueling stations. In many cases, these stations are wetlands throughout the Americas. For the past month or so, and continuing through May, Oklahomans will have a chance to see the passersby.

“There is a wide range of different shorebird species coming through, but they’re blasting through really quick,” said Craig Davis, Bollenback Wildlife Chair and professor in Oklahoma State University’s Department of Natural Resource Ecology and Management. “They’re under such tight constraints to get up to the Arctic to breed and they have a very short window to actually raise their young.”

While the many species of shorebirds have similar distances to travel to reach their destinations, they all have different travel habits. Some birds will hop short distances, maybe 200 miles, between stops. Others will skip from station to station, traveling up to 500 miles before refueling.

And, finally, birds traveling over large portions of the ocean, called jumpers, will set up at staging areas and load up their fat reserves before the long flights.

Regardless of their travel habits, the birds rely on wetlands in Middle America, which has become a problem. The global shorebird population has declined by 50 percent over the past 60 years, with a decrease in wetland habitat as the primary cause.

“These wetlands are critically important for them. They are the stepping stones that shorebirds rely upon to successfully migrate all the way to the Arctic,” Davis said. “Without these little gas stations, the birds will be unable to bring with them the necessary nutrients for egg deposition, or even have the energy to complete the arduous trip.”

The shorebirds tend to select areas where there are complexes of wetlands because they can minimize their energy use in searching for food. If there is just one, they might miss it. But, with a big selection of many wetlands that occur in complexes, they can hop around and find much-needed food.

“Shorebirds are very opportunistic when it comes to feeding,” said Davis. “They feed almost exclusively on invertebrates, but they are not too picky about which invertebrates. All that really matters is that they are able to obtain the necessary nutrients and energy to continue their migration. Given their short window for breeding in the Arctic, they cannot really afford to be too selective for invertebrates during their stay at each wetland.”

Even the most opportunistic shorebird will have trouble surviving if there are not many wetlands to use for feeding. However, the good news is that there are several volunteer programs offered through various agencies, both federal and state, to help landowners see the value of wetlands and provide habitat for shorebirds and other birds such as ducks and geese.

The Natural Resources Conservation Commission offers the Wetland Reserve Program and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in partnership with the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, offers the Partners for Wildlife program.

“The impacts are numerous but most of the impacts would be observations that I have noticed in the last 16 years and would not be only from WRP but also the work of USFWS and ODWC,” said Steve Barner, NRCS WRP specialist. “The Red Slough (Management Area near Haworth, Okla.) has 320 documented species showing up at this time.”

For more information on these programs, or to learn about the benefits of retaining our remaining wetlands, visit the Oklahoma Conservation Commission’s Wetlands Program website ( or contact the Oklahoma NRCS about conservation programs to enhance and protect wetlands