Right now, one of nature’s most amazing annual journeys is underway as bird move from their wintering habitats to their summer homes. Birds migrate to move from areas of low or decreasing resources to areas of high or increasing resources and in the spring the resources they seek are food and nesting locations.
Not all birds migrate; permanent residents are able to find enough food year round. Other birds are short or medium distance migrants moving from higher to lower elevations or short distances spanning only a few states. When we think of migration we are most often considering long-distance migrants whose travels can span thousands of miles. About 350 species of North American birds are long distance migrants. The origins of long distance migration are complex and have evolved over thousands of years, incorporating responses to day length, food sources, weather and more. Moving north with the lengthening days and greater insect abundance allows birds to raise more young than their tropical cousins. Birds combine several senses to help them navigate their journey including the earth’s magnetic field, the position of the sun and other stars, and other landmarks.
Birds face many hazards on their journey and we can help them on their way. One of the greatest hazards to birds is our nearly invisible or highly reflective windows as window collisions cause hundreds of millions of bird deaths each year. Providing something to break up the reflection and/or make the glass more visible (patterns no more than 2 inches apart) will protect them from this danger. Be a responsible pet owner and keep your cats indoors as one cat is capable of killing up to 55 birds a year. Be an advocate for birds by writing to your representatives in congress to support the Migratory Bird Protection Act (HR 5552) that will replace the protections recently diminished by the administration’s new interpretation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, a law that has protected birds for over 100 years. Support birds by planting native plants and allowing insects to have their share in a pesticide-free zone. Nestlings require copious amounts of caterpillars and other insects for protein to help them grow. Additionally, let your woods be a little wild, letting dead trees (snags) stand as long as they’re no danger to your property. This provides lots of grubs for birds to eat as well as nesting sites for birds such as flycatchers. Keep your feeders filled, especially hummingbird feeders with high quality, nutritious food to provide a reliable source for hungry bird parents.
Interested in what’s migrating where and when? Cornell Lab of Ornithology has combined satellite data with over 750 million eBird observations to create 500 animated maps that you can explore here. You can also check out live migration maps here.