Ensuring long term sustainability is the goal of College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences (ACES) professor Mike Ward’s ongoing work to track and study grassland birds that migrate between the United States and Mexico.
“Many of the grassland birds that breed in the United States spend their winters in the Potosino Altiplano Region of San Luis Potosi in north-central Mexico. Because these species are declining, we want to understand their movement, the habitat they use, and their survival,” Ward says.
During a visit to San Lois Potosi, Mexico in 2016 with the ACES Global Academy, Ward, a professor in the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences, reached out to a colleague at the nearby Instituto Potosino de Investigacion Cientifica y Tecnologica (IPICYT), who also had an interest in grassland birds. In collaboration with a local non-governmental organization (Organizacion Vida Silvestre; OVIS), the two put in a joint proposal for funding through the Neotropical Migratory Bird Conservation Act, a program of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that addresses migratory bird populations’ needs on a continental scale and conserves birds throughout their life cycles.
Ward’s funded project “Winter Ecology of Grassland Birds” specifically evaluates the ecology of lark buntings, Brewer sparrows, and an endemic species the Worthen’s sparrow. The team is investigating the abundance, density, habitat use and preference, occupancy, local movements, parasitism, and health condition of the birds.
During January 2020, Ward visited the area to begin setting up the necessary technology for tracking and monitoring, but the COVID-19 pandemic soon put a pause on subsequent activities. This January he was finally able to return to finish setting up the tracking system and to train a graduate student at IPICYT who will catch, handle, and attach transmitters to the birds and also conduct regular surveys of the grassland birds in the region.
The research site in the Mexican state of San Luis Potosi sits at the southern end of the Chihuahuan Desert, which historically had plenty of dry grasslands for migrating birds to enjoy.
“Due to overgrazing, poor water management, and climate change the habitat has become lower quality,” Ward explains.
The researchers are working with the local ejido (local community leaders) and non-governmental organizations (OVIS) to compare areas of the habitat that allow different levels of cattle grazing.
“At the end of the project, we will be able to provide information on what grazing practices are providing the best habitats for the birds. Collaboration and having good information exchange with Mexico are so important to the conservation of these birds we share with them,” Ward says.