Illinois Department of Natural Resources
February 2021
February 1, 2021
Photo by Ray Hennessy on Unsplash.

Mississippi Flyway Council

By Benjamin Williams

Each fall, millions of birds migrate south, seeking warmer weather and more plentiful food resources. Then, like clockwork, they travel north in the spring to build nests, lay eggs and raise juveniles. They will travel hundreds if not thousands of miles, stop and rest in a variety of different places, and group up in massive flocks during these migrations. 

A brown, gray, and black bird wades in a wetland foraging for food. Vegetation surrounds the bird.
Sora rail forages in a wetland.
Photo by Michael R. Jeffords.

Managing wildlife that are constantly moving is a challenge. Political boundaries do not mean much to a bird, but they can significantly impact how wildlife managers are able to provide quality habitat and regulate populations. As migrating birds travel these great distances, there are numerous states and provinces that “share” these birds and need to coordinate their management efforts appropriately. This system is vastly different than resident game species, such as deer, turkey and pheasants. States can manage these species without input from neighboring states or the federal government because these animals do not travel as great of distances. Imagine if all neighboring states (or even beyond those) had to agree on how to manage deer populations, or how hunting regulations should be set and implemented every season. This is how the system needs to happen for waterfowl, so good communication and teamwork among states and provinces is essential.

Initially, the federal government regulated waterfowl hunting with minimal input from states. As more states wanted input, a new system needed to be developed to allow wildlife managers to come together to coordinate bird management throughout central North America. In 1952, the Flyway Council System was established, creating four Flyway Councils (Pacific, Central, Mississippi and Atlantic) that address each major migration corridor. 

A map of North America indicating the Atlantic Flyway, the Mississippi Flyway, the Central Flyway, and the Pacific Flyway.

Illinois belongs to the Mississippi Flyway Council (MFC) which includes 14 states, three Canadian provinces, the Canadian Wildlife Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). The Mississippi Flyway, somewhat following the Mississippi River, extends from parts of Canada in the north to the Gulf of Mexico in the south, and from the Appalachian Mountains in the east to the Great Plains in the west. It is a major flyway for all birds, but especially waterfowl. 

The MFC is made up of natural resources administrators from each of those states and provinces who can institute policies and direct funding for cooperative management and research. Supporting the MFC are two technical sections, comprised of state, provincial, and federal biologists with expertise in migratory birds as well as representatives from universities and non-profit organizations focused on conservation or bird issues. The Game Bird Technical Section (GBTS) provides the MFC with information and recommendations regarding huntable bird species, while the Non-game Bird Technical Section (NBTS) does the same for non-huntable species. Both the GBTS and the NBTS have important roles in synchronizing research, directing data collection, identifying threats, improving habitat, and coordinating overall migratory bird management throughout the flyway.

When the MFC was first convened in 1952, it was primarily concerned with waterfowl populations within central North America. Waterfowl hunting is a culturally and financially important pastime throughout North America, but especially within the Mississippi Flyway. Having seen the impact of market hunting on waterfowl populations, and the positive effects of legislation protecting ducks and geese, it was important for waterfowl researchers and biologists throughout the Flyway to come together to direct continued, cooperative management. 

Two black, gray, and white ducks glide on the water of a wetland.
Ring-necked ducks. Photo by Michael R. Jeffords.

The GBTS, in its mission to provide technical expertise and recommendations to the full MFC, convenes twice a year to discuss changes, new science, and management of the migratory game birds in the Flyway. At these meetings, GBTS representatives provide updates on happenings in their respective regions. They review relevant research and analyze population, habitat, and harvest data necessary to recommend appropriate hunting regulations. The MFC reviews recommendations received from the technical advisory group and votes on recommendations to send to the USFWS.

The Service’s Migratory Bird Regulations Committee then considers these recommendations before establishing annual migratory bird hunting regulations. Although each state is responsible for setting specific hunting season dates and bag limits, they must do so within the framework outlined by the USFWS. The GBTS and MFC provide recommendations and suggestions on that framework based on the best possible information available. As new challenges and issues arise, it is important that the states and provinces work together to find the solution that works best for the Flyway as a whole.

In 2009, the MFC established the NBTS to address non-game migratory bird species throughout the Flyway. Similar to the GBTS, the NBTS is made up of state and provincial biologists as well as experts from non-profit organizations and universities with expertise in migratory bird management. Though comparatively new, the NBTS reviews and address concerns about non-game species, such as nuisance migratory birds, falconry and other associated permits. When it makes sense, the two technical sections make joint recommendations to the MFC about groups of birds that may contain both game and non-game species or issues that impact all migratory birds. 

A yellow, orange bird with gray wings perches on a branch. Green leaves and branches are in the background.
Prothonotary warbler perches on a branch.
Photo by Michael R Jeffords.

Ultimately, the Mississippi Flyway Council and the two technical sections that support it provide a voice for all of the states and provinces within the Flyway. As migratory birds are a shared resource, communication and coordination amongst biologists, researchers and administrators is crucial to the management of migratory bird populations. 

The MFC sends recommendation and other items to the National Flyway Council, which is made up of representatives from all four flyways (Atlantic, Mississippi, Central and Pacific). It is through the National Flyway Council that the states and provinces can suggest large scale changes in migratory bird regulations, such as the addition of an option allowing four waterfowl hunting zones within a state. Through this chain of biologists, non-profit organizations, states, provinces, technical sections, and councils, migratory bird management can be coordinated at all levels of government, ultimately maximizing migratory bird populations and habitat throughout the continent.

A black and white logo including a flying Canada goose in a white triangle with a black outline. Inside the triangle are the words "Mississippi Flyway Council."

Ben Williams is from Excelsior, Minnesota and graduated from the University of Minnesota Crookston with a Bachelor’s of Science in Wildlife Management. He worked for Audubon Dakota, a branch of the National Audubon Society, doing bird conservation work throughout the Dakotas until 2015 when he began his Wabash River waterfowl research on the with the Illinois Natural History Survey and the University of Illinois as part of his Master’s of Science in Natural Resources and Environmental Science which he expects to complete in May 2018. An avid hunter, fisherman, camper and outdoorsman, he spends his free time exploring and enjoying nature.