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Why are birds on the move?

We are very blessed to have beautiful birds that live here all year around. The Northern Cardinal, the Blue Jay and the American Goldfinch are just a few examples of birds that spend their lives with us. In case you haven’t noticed, many of our summer nesters are disappearing. By the time you are reading this, catbirds, swallows, buntings, orioles, tanagers and many more are heading south. Bird migration is fascinating and I hope you can enjoy some of the benefits this fall.

Northern Cardinal

Large numbers of our summer nesters are only with us to raise their young before they return home to the tropics. These birds are called Neotropical Migrants and they live most of the year in Central or South America. In spring, they have learned that our forests are rich in insects and therefore they head north to raise their babies. The vast Canadian Taiga provides a very buggy environment and numerous warblers and flycatchers arrive in spring. Once the babies are raised, they all head south. Because there are so many birds, September and October are great months to get a look at these colorful birds. They are not in as much of a hurry to get home so often flocks can be seen in the same area for several days. Many eat insects, but some will visit your feeders. One of my favorites is the Rose-breasted Grosbeak. Look for this beauty the last week in September and the first two weeks of October.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak

If you happen to visit the coast, large flocks of shorebirds are heading south as well. Adults start migrating in August and leave their young so they can fatten up for the trip. Young birds are able to follow the adults instinctively so they arrive later. Some birds will stay at our coast but some head to the tip of South America. One large shorebird will fly from Alaska to New Zealand without stopping!

Short-billed Dowitcher

Another amazing migrant is our Ruby-throated Hummingbird. My birds usually are gone by September but I leave my feeders up through October to help the birds that nest up north as they come through. Many of our hummers head to Florida where they will fatten up, often doubling their weight. They then head out over the Gulf of Mexico and fly all the way to Central America.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

You might notice some new birds in your yard as fall progresses. Many birds that breed in the north will spend the winter here as we have more food available. Several sparrows become common winter birds and will use our bird feeders. Purple Finches will move through our area but rarely stay at our feeders unlike the similar House Finches that live here now. Some birds only move south if their food is in short supply. Pine Siskins are the most common but Red-breasted Nuthatches and Evening Grosbeaks occasionally visit. If you look at our wintering American Robins, you might notice that they are darker than our nesting birds. Our robins have shifted south and these birds are from the north as well.

Pine Siskin

So why all this movement? Basically, it boils down to competition for food. The northern forests and tundra explode with insects and other invertebrates in summer. The local birds will utilize them but birds from the south learned they could move in and raise a family then head home for the northern winter. Global warming is changing the budding of trees and the emergence of insects, but we are worried that these migrants might not be able to adjust to the new time table. Natural selection will favor those that do adapt, but how consistent will these changes be?

I hope you will take some time to look for migrating birds this fall and winter. Old neighborhoods and parks are great places to see some of these gems. If you enjoy feeding birds I hope you are blessed with some of our northern neighbors!


Hop Hopkins is a member of Redeemer and a keen ornathologist. Keep an eye out for his next Bird Walk.

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