Starting in central Canada and stretching to the Gulf of Mexico, the Mississippi Flyway is the name given to the route followed by birds migrating from their breeding grounds in North America to their wintering grounds in the south. The flyway includes Canada’s Mackenzie River which flows north through uninhabited forest and tundra into the Arctic Ocean, with tributaries reaching southwards, feeding into and out of a number of lakes, including the Great Slave Lake, Great Bear Lake and Lake Athabasca. As the name suggests, the Mississippi Flyway follows the route of the Mississippi River in the United States – North America’s largest river system. Originating in northern Minnesota, the slow-flowing river travels southwards for a distance of 2,530 miles, cutting through, or forming a border for, the states of Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, Kentucky and Tennessee to before emptying into the Mississippi River Delta at the Gulf of Mexico.
According to Audubon, nearly half of the bird species and up to forty percent of the waterfowl of North America spend part of their lives in the Mississippi Flyway. With spectacular forests, grasslands and wetlands, the route provides good sources of food and water, with no mountainous areas to navigate along the entire route. The greatest elevation above sea level along the route is below 2,000 feet. The route is used by large numbers of geese, ducks, shorebirds, sparrows, blackbirds, thrushes and warblers, the majority of which cut across the Gulf of Mexico, providing excellent birding opportunities along the coasts of Louisiana and Texas.
Unfortunately, years of exploitation of natural resources by man has taken its toll on the environment, with waterways being diverted for irrigation having an impact on the habitat that birds and other wildlife rely on. A combination of dams, locks and levees have reduced the Mississippi to less than ten percent of its original floodplain with an estimated nineteen square miles of delta wetlands disappearing annually. Thanks to the efforts of Audubon, which has offices in Minnesota, Indiana, Ohio, Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi, efforts to preserve habitats along the Mississippi Flyway are making a difference to the birds that make use of the route each year. Audubon is currently focusing intensive conservation efforts on twenty-seven bird species along the Mississippi Flyway, namely: Mottled Duck; Greater Prairie-Chicken; Brown Pelican; Little Blue Heron; Reddish Egret; Swallow-tailed Kite; Clapper Rail; Snowy Plover; Wilson’s Plover; Piping Plover; American Oystercatcher; Upland Sandpiper; Ruddy Turnstone; Red Knot; Sanderling; Western Sandpiper; Short-billed Dowitcher; Least Tern; Black Skimmer; Prothonotary Warbler; Swainson’s Warbler; Cerulean Warbler; Grasshopper Sparrow; Henslow’s Sparrow; Seaside Sparrow; Bobolink; and Eastern Meadowlark.