MSU evaluates migratory bird habitat initiative


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Posted: 5/1/2015

MSU evaluates migratory bird habitat initiative Photo By: Submitted

Preliminary results of a Mississippi State University wildlife study show that a federal program to protect birds after the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill has had widespread ecological, environmental, and economic benefits in the Southeast.

Researchers in the MSU Forest and Wildlife Research Center released a study evaluating the Migratory Bird Habitat Initiative, or MBHI. The program was created by the United States Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service, or NRCS, in response to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill to provide alternate wetlands for migratory and resident waterbirds inland away from the oil spill area. Certain phases of the study remain ongoing.

"When the oil spill occurred, no one knew what was going to happen to marshes along the coast," said Charles Rewa, a biologist with the NRCS Resource Assessment Division. "An ad hoc interagency working group of waterbird experts had been previously focusing on longstanding habitat issues emerging in the Mississippi Alluvial Valley, or MAV, and along the coasts of Louisiana and Texas."

The group included personnel from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Lower Mississippi Valley and Gulf Coast Joint Ventures of the North American Waterfowl Management Plan, Ducks Unlimited, Inc., the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, the NRCS, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), and state wildlife and natural resources agencies.

"The oil spill served as a catalyst to respond to some of these long-term habitat issues that had been occurring slowly over several decades while providing alternative habitats inland for millions of migrating and resident birds soon after the spill," Rewa said.

The NRCS allocated $40 million to landowners in eight states to manage 470,000 acres of habitat for one to three years. The NRCS commissioned the MSU Forest and Wildlife Research Center to lead an independent evaluation of MBHI. Richard Kaminski, the James C. Kennedy Endowed Chair in Waterfowl and Wetlands Conservation, served as the project's principal investigator, together with J. Brian Davis, Francisco Vilella, Guiming Wang, and Lisa Webb as co-investigators and seven graduate students from MSU, Arkansas Tech University and the University of Missouri.

"Catastrophes like the oil spill can have lasting impacts on waterfowl and waterbird populations," Kaminski said. "The NRCS acted swiftly to implement MBHI to provide alternative habitats for waterbirds in hopes of reducing that impact."

The scientists studied waterbird species, populations, available food and cost-effectiveness on MBHI land that included production and idled rice fields, idled catfish ponds and natural wetlands enrolled in the Wetlands Reserve Program, or WRP.

Researchers estimated how many and which species of waterbirds were utilizing the habitats, how much food was available for the birds and cost-effectiveness of the program in terms of potential food energy available for maintaining birds during migration and wintering periods.

MBHI lands proved a haven for migrating and wintering waterfowl and birds; providing an abundance of potential food in a cost-effective manner. The FWRC study indicated:

  • Louisiana and Texas-based MBHI-flooded rice fields averaged 15 waterbirds per acre compared to two birds per acre on non-flooded fields and provided one-fourth of the region's estimated duck energy needs on less than two percent of the land; MBHI management cost approximately $30 per acre in Louisiana rice fields, which translated to less than 2 cents per duck energy day (the daily energy requirements for one duck during winter);
  • Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas Mississippi Alluvial Valley (MAV) MBHI lands had almost three times more ducks and twice as many waterbirds compared to non-MBHI sites; seven times more shorebirds per acre were observed on MBHI sites compared to state and federal managed or conserved coastal wetlands in Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi during fall migration;
  • Biodiversity existed on MBHI idled catfish ponds with more than 40 waterbird species; Mississippi MBHI catfish ponds satisfied nearly all of the wetland habitat required for shorebirds migrating through the MAV and Western Gulf Coastal Plain in the fall;
  • Louisiana and Mississippi MBHI wetlands had 1.3 to 1.5 times more native seeds while Arkansas and Missouri MBHI wetlands had 21 percent more native seeds than non-managed wetlands in winter; MBHI wetlands had 200 percent more aquatic invertebrates compared to non-MBHI-and WRP easements in fall and Arkansas and Missouri MBHI wetlands had 40 percent more aquatic invertebrates compared to public land wetlands in winter;
  • MBHI lands satisfied 28 percent of the duck energy needs designated by the Lower Mississippi Valley Joint Venture in the MAV on only one percent of the land

To learn more about MBHI and the MSU Forest and Wildlife Research Center, visit

Wildlife and Fisheries