Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Units Program: Louisiana
Education, Research and Technical Assistance for Managing Our Natural Resources

Donnelly, J.P., S. L. King, J. Netter, J.H. Gammonley, V.J. Dreitz, B.A. Grisham, M.C. Nowak, and D.P. Collins. 2021. Water scarcity drives ecological bottlenecks in continental migration networks supporting greater sandhill cranes. Ecosphere 12(6): 12(6):e03543. 10.1002/ecs2.3543


Preserving avian flyway connectivity has long been challenged by our capacity to meaningfully quantify continental habitat dynamics and bird movements at temporal and spatial scales underlying long-distance migrations. Waterbirds migrating hundreds or thousands of kilometers depend on networks of wetland stopover sites to rest and refuel. Entire populations may rely on discrete wetland habitats, particularly in arid landscapes where the loss of limited stopover options can have disproportionately high impacts on migratory cost. Here, we examine flyway connectivity in water-limited ecosystems of western North America using 108 GPS tagged greater sandhill cranes. Bird movements were used to reconstruct wetland stopover networks across three geographically unique sub-populations spanning 12 US-Mexican states and Canadian provinces. Networks were monitored with remote sensing to identify long-term (1988-2019) trends in wetland and agricultural resources supporting migration and were evaluated using centrality metrics as a measure of stopover site importance to flyway connectivity. Sandhill crane space-use was analyzed in stopover locations to identify important ownership and landscape factors structuring bird distributions. Migratory efficiency was the primary mechanism underpinning network function. A small number of key stopover sites important to minimizing movement cost between summering and wintering locations were essential to preserving flyway connectivity. Localized efficiencies were apparent in stopover landscapes given prioritization of space-use by birds where the proximity of agricultural food resources and flooded wetlands minimized daily movements. Model depictions showing wetland declines from 16-18% likely reflect a new normal in landscape drying that could decouple agriculture-waterbird relationships as water scarcity intensifies. Sustaining network resilience will require conservation strategies to balance water allocations preserving agricultural and wetlands on private lands that accounted for 67-96% of habitat use. Study outcomes provide new perspectives of agroecological relationships supporting continental waterbird migration necessary to prioritize conservation of landscapes vital to maintaining flyway connectivity.