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With support for the EPA, biologists go out on a genetic limb to help stem migratory songbird declines

SAN FRANCISCO, CA, October 12, 1999--Using new DNA sampling techniques, conservation biologists from San Francisco State University's Center for Tropical Research (CTR) have laid the foundation for a new method of assessing population declines in neotropical migratory songbirds, something researchers have been unable to do using traditional bird-banding methods.

Citing confidence in the results of a three-year pilot study by CTR, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is funding the second phase of research, which begins this month.

According to CTR Director Dr. Thomas Smith, researchers seeking clues about widespread songbird declines using banding studies (in which birds are caught, tagged, and then released for later recapture) are limited by their inability to link breeding and wintering populations of at-risk species. For example, of the 142,000 Wilson's warblers banded on North American breeding grounds over a 20-year period, only three were recaptured in their wintering grounds. Genetic marking techniques, on the other hand, can reveal important details such as where in Mexico a small breeding population of Wilson's warblers from the San Francisco Bay Area spends its winter each year.

"If you can link wintering and breeding populations, you can tie-in land-use patterns contributing to their decline. This information is critical to establishing any species recovery plan," said Dr. Smith, an SFSU professor and evolutionary ecologist. "This is science and policy on the same track."

These melodious migratory birds, which flock north each spring from Latin America to find mates and fledge offspring, are important environmental indicator species. Sensitive to habitat degradation, their declines raise the same early warning sign about environmental health that their doomed cousin, the canary, did for working conditions in coal mines.

As such, the EPA has awarded CTR a $330,000 grant to produce three more years worth of research, with t
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Contact: Merrik Bush-Pirkle
merrik@sfsu.edu
415-338-6747
San Francisco State University
12-Oct-1999


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