Bird migration is the Ironman of the avian world. Five-foot-tall whooping cranes and 3-inch hummingbirds alike arrive exhausted and ravenous at stopovers after flying full tilt for hundreds of miles. A champion is the 0.4-ounce blackpoll warbler, which wings more than 2,000 miles nonstop over the Atlantic Ocean from Canada to Venezuela.
Migrating birds make this epic journey twice a year, flying south in autumn to warmer climates and north in spring to summer nesting grounds.
“Migration is truly miraculous,” says Colette Dean of Baton Rouge, La., who birdwatches on the Gulf Coast. “I got teary the first time I saw a depleted red knot land,” she says. “I felt like calling, ‘Welcome, welcome!’”
Bird migrations instill “a sense of awe and reverence for nature” for many birdwatchers like Joan Lamphier of Stinson Beach, Calif. She was inspired to volunteer for the Golden Gate Raptor Observatory, which works to protect hawk habitat. The greatest threat to birds is destruction of critical habitat by real-estate development, logging, highway construction, and natural disasters that are escalating with climate change.
Birdwatching takes you outdoors (often in early morning!), fine-tunes your senses, and hones your focus. (For more on its mental-health benefits, visit “The Mental-Health Benefits of Bird Watching”.)
Though dozens of species may vie for your attention, Lamphier recommends picking just one bird to observe. “Study the shape of its beak, the color of its plumage.” At day’s end, instead of a blur of wings, you’ll be well acquainted with the rainbow feathers of the painted bunting or the clacking sound of the Ridgway’s rail.
You don’t have to be a bird expert to be wowed by migrating birds. Nor do you need to travel 9,300 miles, like the red knot (a sandpiper listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act), which flies from the Arctic to South America and back. Instead, find a nearby bird “hot spot” (see www.birdwatchingdaily.com/hotspots) or visit one of these six popular avian rest stops.
How to Help Birds Migrate Safely
Millions of birds die while migrating, frequently colliding at night with brightly lit office buildings and even houses built in migration flyways. Blizzards and hurricanes, exacerbated by climate change, take a toll, as do floods and wildfires that obliterate food sources at stopovers. Here’s what you can do:
- Advocate for preserving natural habitats in your area, and support land-conservation nonprofits such as the Audubon Society and the Nature Conservancy.
- Make your yard bird-friendly with native-plant landscaping and a water source. For planning tips and additional information, visit audubon.org.
- Minimize exterior spotlight use, and shade and/or dim outdoor light bulbs so they shine downward.
- Cover windows with decals or strips of translucent tape spaced 4 inches apart to reduce bird strikes.
- Avoid using pesticides on your lawn and garden.
- Keep your cats indoors. The American Bird Conservancy estimates that cats kill 2.4 billion birds every year in the United States.