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Feature Stories

Keeping the Song Alive
Doctoral student Michael Akresh is working to promote songbird conservation
Michael Akresh is conducting research on the Prairie Warbler habitat.

"The broad goal of this research is to inform wildlife managers, land managers, and the general society how to better conserve wildlife populations and ecosystems."
-Michael Akresh

Prairie warblers are small yellow songbirds who haven’t had much to sing about lately. Their population, like that of many songbirds that live in shrubby habitats, has been steadily declining over the past several decades. Michael Akresh, a doctoral student in UMass Amherst’s Department of Environmental Conservation, is determined to find out why and what can be done about it.

For the past five years, Akresh has been following the prairie warbler’s annual migration routes, which include both breeding and non-breeding stops. He has completed winter fieldwork in Jamaica and the Bahamas, examining birds in both wet mangroves and dry scrub habitats, to better understand which are best for the birds’ condition and survival. Akresh is also researching whether birds that winter in more food-rich habitats arrive in their summer breeding grounds in the Northeast sooner, stronger, and better able to secure territories and reproduce.

In the Northeast United States, the prairie warbler’s preferred breeding habitat contains low shrubs, dense vegetation, and few tall trees. Historically, such habitats were created naturally by wildfires, but throughout the region they are falling victim to fire-suppression and development. A remaining breeding site is nine miles north of UMass Amherst, at the Montague Plains Wildlife Management Area. There, in pitch pine-scrub oak barrens, the state of Massachusetts is conducting prescribed burnings and mowings in an effort to reduce the risk of wildfire and promote biodiversity and preservation of birds, bees, and other wildlife that depend on this unique habitat.

To see how the management is affecting the birds, Akresh is examining prairie warbler abundance, dispersal, and reproductive success in various managed habitats. Results from the last four years suggest that the local population is increasing and reproducing well in managed areas. This makes a strong case for the continued creation, preservation, and management of the shrubby habitats in which these birds reside.

“The broad goal of this research,” he says, “is to inform wildlife managers, land managers, and the general society how to better conserve wildlife populations and ecosystems, many of which are in peril due to habitat loss and degradation, climate change, and other factors.”

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