Alaska supports a great diversity of landbird species, or birds that rely principally on terrestrial habitats. The whole of the the Alaska landbird avifauna is composed of 260 species, 135 breeding species, and a wide variety of bird groups such as raptors, ptarmigan, woodpeckers, swallows, chickadees, thrushes, warblers, and sparrows. Raptors and eagles are discussed more in-depth here. Landbirds are found in all terrestrial habitats that occur in Alaska. Because of the unique geographic position of Alaska, many of the state's landbirds are found nowhere else in the United States or North America.
Landbirds Love Alaska
- The entire world's population of McKay's Buntings resides in Alaska.
- North American breeding populations of gray-headed chickadee, arctic warbler, bluethroat, yellow and white wagtail, and red-throated pipit nest entirely or almost entirely within Alaska.
- Alaska supports the the entire U.S. breeding population of the willow and rock ptarmigan, northern shrike, northern wheatear, gray-cheeked thrush, bohemian waxwing, American tree and golden-crowned sparrows, Smith's and Lapland longspur, snow bunting, and common and hoary redpoll.
- Within the U.S, more than 75% of the breeding populations of alder flycatcher, northwestern crow, boreal chickadee, blackpoll warbler, and rusty blackbird occur in Alaska.
Approximately 50% of the landbirds breeding in Alaska migrate outside of Alaska to spend the winter. Many of these migrant landbirds travel great distances to and from their wintering grounds in either the Old World (e.g., southeast Asia, Africa) or New World (Mexico and Central and South America) tropics. For example, the tiny Blackpoll Warbler (which weighs as much as a pair of 25 ¢ coins) travels up to 5,000 miles from Alaska to the Amazonian basin of Brazil to send the winter! Because Alaska's assemblage of landbird species collectively occupy a vast portion of the globe over the annual cycle, their conservation requires considerable cooperation and planning among biologists both within Alaska and among states, countries, and continents.
Species that share the same breeding habitat in central Alaska travel to markedly different wintering grounds:
- Blackpoll warblers fly south to the western Amazon Basin;
- Arctic warblers migrate to Southeast Asia;
- White-crowned sparrows pass the winter in the southwestern United States; and
- Willow ptarmigan stay in Alaska all winter.
Like many landbirds that breed in North America, 69 species, or 51%, of landbirds that breed in Alaska migrate to Mexico, Caribbean islands, or Central and South America. No other group of birds that breed in Alaska, including shorebirds, contains as many species that travel outside of the United States to spend the winter. The bank swallow and peregrine falcon, for example, will travel as far south as Argentina.
Nine species of landbirds (7%) that nest in Alaska and migrate to Asia in the winter breed nowhere else in the United States. These include the bluethroat, white wagtail, and northern wheatear. Most of these species are more widespread in Europe and Russia. Little is known about their biology in Alaska.
Some landbird species (19%) that leave Alaska for the winter end their migration when they reach the lower 48 states. Many of these species will spend the winter in the coastal forests of the Pacific Northwest (e.g., northern saw-whet owl, varied thrush, red crossbill). In years of short food supplies, large numbers of bohemian waxwings, northern hawk owls, and white-winged crossbills will invade the lower 48 states from Alaska.
Surprisingly, 31 landbird species (23%) choose to spend their winter in Alaska. As you might expect, most of Alaska's winter landbird residents are grouse, owls and woodpeckers (18 species). Away from the coast, however, birds are often hard to find. Christmas Bird Counts in central Alaska seldom reach 20 species and are dominated by common ravens, black-capped and boreal chickadees, and common redpolls. The only species unique to Alaska, the McKay's bunting, leaves its breeding sites on islands in the Bering Sea to pass the winter on the mainland coast of western Alaska.
Partners in Flight Conservation Plans have been developed for landbirds in most of the physiographic regions and states in the US and make up the foundation for securing the health of our countries landbirds populations through partnerships, cooperative science, and habitat conservation and management.
Boreal Partners in Flight
Boreal Partners in Flight is a coalition of individuals who are working together to help conserve landbird populations throughout boreal regions of North America. Boreal Partners in Flight is the official Alaska state working group of the international Partners in Flight program. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service plays a leading role in Boreal Partners in Flight which has over 100 members, including representatives from all the major federal land and resource managers in Alaska and Canada, state and provincial agencies, universities, Alaska Native corporations, and local environmental consulting firms. Nongovernmental organizations such as the Alaska Bird Observatory, Alaska Natural Heritage Program, and local chapters of the National Audubon Society play key roles. The foundation of the program, however, relies on the commitment of individuals. Boreal Partners in Flight includes biologists, land managers, teachers, and birders—a diverse, active, and dedicated group.