Spring migration of waterfowl in the northern hemisphere: a conservation perspective

Joshua D. Stafford, Adam K. Janke, Michael J. Anteau, Aaron T. Pearse, Anthony D. Fox, Johan Elmberg, Jacob N. Straub, Michael W. Eichholz, Céline Arzel


Spring migration is a key part of the annual cycle for waterfowl populations in the northern hemisphere, due to its temporal proximity to the breeding season and because resources may be limited at one or more staging sites. Research based on field observations during spring lags behind other periods of the year, despite the potential for fitness consequences through diminished survival or cross-seasonal effects of conditions experienced during migration. Consequently, conservation strategies for waterfowl on spring migration are often only refined versions of practices used during autumn and winter. Here we discuss the current state of knowledge of habitat requirements for waterfowl at their spring migratory sites and the intrinsic and extrinsic factors that lead to variability in those requirements. The provision of plant foods has become the main conservation strategy during spring because of the birds’ energy requirements at this time, not only to fuel migration but to facilitate early clutch formation on arrival at the breeding grounds. Although energy sources are important to migrants, there is little evidence on the extent to which the availability of carbohydrate-based food is limiting for many migratory waterfowl populations.  Such limitation is relatively unlikely among populations that exploit agricultural grain during migration (e.g. arctic-nesting geese), suggesting that conservation strategies for these populations may be misplaced. In general, however, we found few cases in which an ecological understanding of spring-migrating waterfowl was sufficient to indicate true resource limitation during migration, and still fewer cases where conservation efforts ameliorated these limitations. We propose a framework that aims to address knowledge gaps and apply empirical research results to conservation strategies based on documented limitations and associated fitness impacts on migrating waterfowl. Such a strategy would improve allocation of scarce conservation resources during spring migration and greatly improve ecological understanding of migratory waterfowl and their habitats in the northern hemisphere.

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