Migratory animals are threatened by human-induced global change. However, little is known about how stopover habitat, essential for refuelling during migration, affects the population dynamics of migratory species. Using 20 years of continent-wide citizen science data, we assess population trends of ten shorebird taxa that refuel on Yellow Sea tidal mudflats, a threatened ecosystem that has shrunk by >65% in recent decades. Seven of the taxa declined at rates of up to 8% per year. Taxa with the greatest reliance on the Yellow Sea as a stopover site showed the greatest declines, whereas those that stop primarily in other regions had slowly declining or stable populations. Decline rate was unaffected by shared evolutionary history among taxa and was not predicted by migration distance, breeding range size, non-breeding location, generation time or body size. These results suggest that changes in stopover habitat can severely limit migratory populations.
Stopover sites are crucial to migratory birds, but the influence of this habitat on population dynamics has not been quantified. Here, Studds et al. show that, among ten migratory species, the degree of reliance on disappearing stopover habitat in the Yellow Sea tidal flats predicts the extent of recent population declines.