Spring is an exciting time for most people. After months of cold weather and cabin fever, the warmth rolls in, and the classic signs of spring begin to emerge. The bees will return, the flowers will grow, and people will be out and traveling with more frequency. However, humans will not be the only ones taking advantage of the warmer weather.
Starting in April and extending into late May, billions of birds will leave their wintering grounds in Central and South America to partake in something called spring migration. For the people known as birders, it is the most exciting time of the year. The number of species in the area will grow exponentially as dozens of warbler, vireo, thrush, and sparrow species will fly north to find suitable nesting areas and abundant food.
It is quite a remarkable process that can be triggered in many different ways, such as day length, temperature, food, and the bird’s genetic predisposition. The birds will react to such changes and follow ancient migratory pathways towards their breeding grounds. They will fly through the night before landing during the day to refuel and repeat the process. To make these night trips, the birds rely on the sun, stars, and even the earth’s magnetic field to keep them on track.
The length of the migratory flight depends on the species. Some birds, like the Palm Warbler, will spend the winter in Florida before making the short migration north. Others come from Central and South America and cover much greater distances. These journeys can reveal some amazing behavior. For example, a small Blackpoll Warbler has been recorded travelling 2,100 miles without stopping, an impressive achievement for a bird weighing less than half an ounce. Even more astounding is the Arctic Tern (pictured above). Scientists have estimated that, over its lifetime, an Arctic Tern, will migrate 1.5 million miles. That is the equivalent of going to the moon and back three times over!
Spring migration is a truly incredible feat, but it does come with risks. Birds suffer massive casualties while migrating these great distances. Any number of things can kill them, such as human interaction, weather, or natural predators. These factors dwindle a flock’s size.
Flocking to the sight
Although it may not seem like a huge deal, birders spend over $40 billion a year on travel, supplies, and lodging. Hotels in hotspots have branded themselves as birder-friendly to attract these feather-loving patrons.
It is not just migration that can cause a fuss in the birder community, which, thanks in part to the pandemic, continues to grow every day. A rare bird sighting can cause people to flock to that area to glimpse the bird. A few weeks ago, birders witnessed a Snowy Owl in Central Park for the first time since the 1800s. People took to Whatsapp, iMessage, and Ebird and within minutes there were 200 people and several news crews clamoring for a chance to photograph the majestic bird.
The migratory travel itineraries of our feathered friends have a significant impact on how we travel as well. People will change flights to see a particular bird on their new detour – seriously, this happened! It is pretty incredible to think about the pull these birds have on the hearts and minds of those who watch them. They have this ability to create an almost cult-like following which attracts millions of people to watch their journey.
Giving birds an upgrade
So, what can you do to make birds’ lives easier during their long journey? You can provide a layover for them on your property. While many migratory birds don’t eat birdseed as chickadees and titmice do, warblers will sometimes flock with those species, so it is good to put various seeds at various heights and presentations to attract the most variety.
Another bird-helping measure is the choice of plants and shrubs. They play a considerable role in birds’ lives as they give them food and shelter from predators in the area. Planting red flowers will help keep Ruby-throated Hummingbirds humming, and other plants will attract insects to keep the insectivore migrants happy.
In an increasing hazardous natural world, creating a healthy and balanced ecosystem in your backyard can mean life or death for these travellers. Dr. John Fitzpatrick, executive director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, compared these types of green patches to a favorite bed and breakfast halfway between your summer and winter house. A location with a variety of cover and food sources can help provide a safer passage for these birds and help you save on gas by attracting the birds to you, so you don’t need to travel to them.
The home stretch
Migration is a remarkable story of travel. These birds, ranging from small hummingbirds to raptors, are able to overcome significant challenges to travel thousands of miles and raise their young. Migration is truly amazing and humans get to reap the benefits. I urge you to go out and explore the wonders that spring migration has to offer, and by doing so, raise awareness in order to protect our feathered friends! •
To learn more, I encourage you to visit the following sites: Audubon.org , Ebird.org, and allaboutbirds.org.
Caleb May is an avid birder, and a senior at The Salisbury School. He will be attending the University of Vermont in the fall to study wildlife and fisheries biology.