Spring is here and birds are migrating to their summer destinations — here, Canada, the northern U.S. and Arctic.
We assembled several interesting points for you to ponder, a “Hey-I-didn’t-know-that” compilation of bird migration facts.
We checked in with Ben Eckhoff, a naturalist with the Department of Natural Resources at Lake Carlos State Park.
He provided insight into the migrators’ arrival, hazards they encounter and how you can learn more and help them along their journey.
Minnesota is along the Mississippi Flyway, the route birds take from their breeding grounds in Canada and the northern U.S. to their wintering grounds along the Gulf of Mexico and into Central and South America.
About 40 percent of all North American waterfowl and 326 species of birds, one-third of all species in North America, use the Mississippi Flyway on their spring and fall migrations, Eckhoff noted.
Peak migration months here are May, September and October.
What do birds need for a successful migration?
“They need quarters to rest in when they need to rest and a food source that’s readily available. Food gives them the energy to move forward in their migration,” Eckhoff said.
Douglas County is in the hardwoods transition zone. It’s a skinny, finger-like strip of land that lies between the prairie to the south and west and pinelands to the north and east.
During migration, migrators will use this transition zone in the hardwoods as a corridor to refuel and rest.
“Typically, there’s somewhere around 150 regular breeding species in this area. Twenty six of those are permanent species, like woodpeckers and chickadees,” Eckhoff said.
“Over 100 species that come through here don’t actually breed here but use it as a stopover,” he said.
Examples include snow geese and the yellow-rumped warbler; one of the first warblers to come through in spring and one of the last to leave in fall, Eckhoff noted.
It was thought for a long time that songbirds migrated in stages, that they’d stop every 100 miles or so and rest and forage and then go on a little further.
“Researchers are finding they’re blowing through their territories during migration about three times faster than anticipated,” Eckhoff said.
“They’re covering great distances and stretching what we thought were their limits with food, exertion and stress to get to those territories to establish themselves and get the good breeding grounds they want. That’s been kind of interesting.”
“So far, the species that are here now are here earlier than normal,” Eckhoff said.
“Some of the birds, like the white pelican that I recorded a few weeks ago, are the earliest ever on record through Audubon Minnesota, about 14 days earlier than they’ve been [recorded] in this area,” he added.
“We’re noticing trends that more bird species are doing similar things; not migrating as far, and there may be some changes with the climate change aspect as well that is affecting some of that with milder winters, not as much snow, easier to find food,” Eckhoff told the Echo Press.
“Then there are birds like the robins that are adapting and changing their strategy to a certain degree. If there’s food and there’s shelter and water for them, they aren’t actually leaving for the winter. They’ll actually try to spend the winter if they can. It puts them back in first place for territory for breeding in the spring. They beat out the ones that did migrate, so there are advantages to not going as far south or staying in the area.”
Migratory birds face a variety of hazards during migration, including urban city lighting and depleted habitat.
“Most of our songbird species migrate at night and the peak migration times are from midnight to 5 a.m. That’s the time they’re really on the move,” Eckhoff said.
That means urban cities can be a hazard for migrators, particularly the bright lights of those big cities; and there are a lot of big cities located up and down migratory corridors like the Mississippi Flyway.
“Most of those birds are navigating in the dark and so they’re using stars to navigate. Well, now you’ve got these big bright lights and it’s kind of throwing the birds off and it brings them in. They can actually end up circling the light ring that occurs in a city and become kind of trapped in there doing circles,” Eckhoff explained.
To limit the impact, across the U.S. and Canada, the “Lights Out” program encourages building owners, particularly in urban areas, to turn out lights visible from outside during spring and fall migration. Minnesota mandates turning off lights in state-owned and leased buildings.
There’s also a push for the use of acceptable exterior lighting fixtures — fixtures that direct light downward.
“Here we don’t have that problem so much because we don’t have these large glass buildings casting a lot of light,” Eckhoff said.
Although we don’t have the artificial light issue here, habitat is certainly a concern.
“Finding food, water, shelter and space — that is habitat and probably the most important piece in some ways,” Eckhoff noted.
“We know there will be deaths during migration with weather, stress, finding food, predators, glass and building strikes, and so on. Having high quality habitat for resting/finding food during migration is definitely important, but once they get to their final stop or breeding territory, this is where the habitat really comes into play again. Having a place where those populations can breed and bring new birds into that population to replace those that died during migration and hopefully add to the overall population is very important.”
He said it’s harder for some species than in the past to find their little territory breeding niches just because of habitat loss or destruction.
“There’s no one person to blame. It’s not the farmers, it’s not the developers, it’s your house and my house that took up what was bird breeding habitat, so there’s no one group to blame,” he said. “We all own that and need to work together to figure out how to preserve or re-establish those more endangered habitat sites for those birds.”
WHAT YOU CAN DO
“The bird-watching community and bird-appreciating community like seeing birds and watching their interactions and seeing those personalities come out. It’s really strong in Minnesota and across the U.S.,” Eckhoff said.
The one easy thing we can do in our own backyards to nurture bird survival is proper placement of bird feeders.
According to Eckhoff, the general rule for feeder placement is the “3 and 30.”
That means, to prevent birds from flying into windows, a feeder should be placed three feet or closer to large windows or 30 feet or further from those windows.
“The reason for that is that with 30 feet or more [birds] have time to avoid window strikes and three feet if they do hit it, they’re not at full speed and won’t damage themselves to the point that they’re going to die or become injured to the point they can’t fly,” he said.
Also, be consistent if you do feed the permanent year-round birds like cardinals and chickadees, Eckhoff advised.
“A lot of migration has started already but our biggest window, typically, is the beginning of May. That’s usually the brunt of the migration in Minnesota.
“Year-to-year it varies, so we could see our peak migration in the middle of April this year if the trend continues with ice-off on almost every lake. … A lot of those shorebirds and waterfowl species will start moving back earlier. As long as there’s insects and food for the songbirds, they’ll also start pushing back earlier,” Eckhoff said.
DID YOU KNOW?
• Most migratory birds travel at night, relying on starlight for navigational cues. They recognize constellations and get critical directional information from the position of the stars in the sky.
• Bright lights in buildings lure countless migratory birds into collisions, but “lights out” programs in cities along the flyways can have a profound impact. Bird deaths declined by 80 percent when lights were turned off at night at Chicago’s McCormick Place — and that’s just one building.
• Tiny songbirds can migrate hundreds of miles a day, rocketing through their spring routes up to three times faster than researchers used to believe.
• Almost all migratory birds are threatened somewhere along their ranges, with only 9 percent of all migratory species protected year-round in all of their habitats.
Source: National Audubon Society
There’s a group of like-minded bird lovers that meet locally. Prairie Lakes Audubon Society meets the first Tuesday of each month at 7 p.m. at Alexandria Senior Center, 414 Hawthorne Street. The May 2 meeting will feature a presentation by photographer Ben Olson who will share tips on photographing owls.