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Migration 2020: The Leaves are Falling and the Birds are Flying

Sep 21, 2020

Tips on how you can help migrating birds on their journeys


"Mystery of the Missing Migrants"

by Charley Harper, 1992

Fall migration is in full swing – with millions of birds traversing the night skies to head south, with some flying as far away as Mexico and Central America from the northern U.S. and Canada. Nearly 300 species will depart from their breeding areas and travel up to two or three months and thousands of miles to pass the winter in more tropical climes.

Migration allows many birds to go where natural resources, like food and nesting locations, are most abundant. As cooler weather and longer days arrive in the fall, birds are lured to warmer regions where food supply is readily available from season to season – feasting on insects, nuts, berries and seeds.

Carla_Mason_314Not all birds are long-distance migrants. For some, the trip south is short; mourning doves, for example, migrate from northern states to southern states. Some birds stay in the same place year-round: House Finches, House Sparrows, Tufted Titmice, American Goldfinches, Pine Siskins, Downy Woodpeckers, Black-capped Chickadees, and Northern Cardinals, to name a few.


With the help of the Earth’s magnetic field, birds learn to recognize various landmarks and form mental maps. These annual treks vary at times, depending on environmental cues. In the case of the Veery, a tiny bird species that migrates from Delaware to South America, a Delaware State University researcher found a direct correlation between the length of the Veery’s breeding season and the severity of the Atlantic hurricane season. The bird would nest longer in years with a bad hurricane season, postponing its journey south.*

This week is an especially active one for migration; BirdCast announced a high intensity migration for the night of September 14, when an estimated 405 million birds took flight across the lower 48 states, including 50 million birds in the northeast alone. “This likely will represent one of the largest migration nights of the year in this region,” the forecast announced, adding, “Those in the northeast should keep a close eye on the nights of September 17-19 as well.”

Those hoping to catch a glimpse of these night flyers should aim binoculars or a spotting scope at the moon, where you might see streaks crossing over. In the daytime, it’s best to go to a local park or large outdoor space between 7 AM to 10 AM.

Make Your Yard a Stopover SpotMigrationStation.pg

Fall migration is a great opportunity to attract bird species not normally seen in your yard.

By taking a few easy steps, your yard can support the basic needs of birds as they rest and refuel before continuing on their journey. Create a “migration station” – with food, shelter and water – and see who comes to visit!

Food: Set up a feeding station with a variety of feeder styles and bird food to accommodate many different birds. Suet feeders provide the nutritious fat birds need for migration, seed cylinders and cakes are an easy-to-use option to slide onto or into a seed cylinder feeder, nyjer mesh feeders are perfect for finches and pine siskins, and WBC specialty seed blends attract many more of the birds you want at your feeders. In addition to what we can supply, hCarla-Mason-328aving bird-friendly plants in your yard helps round out your offering since not all migrants are seed eaters. “Leave” some of the fallen leaves under shrubs to provide an ample foraging area for ground-feeding birds such as sparrows, doves, and thrushes.

Shelter: Keep bird houses up as nights get cooler as they provide a windbreak, and you may even find many of the same species crammed in as they use body heat to keep warm. Try our convertible bird houses, which are designed to insulate for colder weather by being able to seal up top ventilation holes and trap heat; the birds will be grateful for a safe, warm place to huddle on a fall night!

Water: Having a water feature, like a bird bath, will broaden the variety of birds you’ll see, including those that don’t frequent feeders. Use a heating element, such as a birdbath heater, to keep it from freezing. Bird baths are valuable, even in cold weather, as birds use them for hydration as well as keeping their feathers clean. Clean feathers are key to birds’ ability to weather the elements as they trap air between their feathers and their skin, much like our double-paned windows at home, forming an efficient barrier to keep the cold out. SongbirdBirdbathPlanter

As summer comes to a close, you can reap the rewards of watching nature in action, taking note of any new, seasonal arrivals and enjoying the last glimpse of departing summer species. Make sure to keep your binoculars and bird list close!

*“A Nearctic-Neotropical Migratory Songbird’s Nesting Phonology and Clutch Size are Predictors of Accumulated Cyclone Energy,” Nature/Scientific Reports, July 2, 2018


Photos by Carla Mason