Migrating birds from Michigan: Heading south?

Watching bird migrations is an excellent activity to do with youth, and fall is the perfect time to get in on some exciting bird watching.

Watching birds migrate can be a great outdoor 4-H activity for youth.
Watching birds migrate can be a great outdoor 4-H activity for youth.

It is that time of year when numerous birds leave our northern climate and head south for the winter. Most people have seen the familiar V-shaped flocks of geese flying overhead. There are undoubtedly many questions about these migrations, particularly from youth. This is an excellent opportunity to spend time with youth outdoors to watch first-hand these events. Why do they leave and why do they come north in the first place? Where do they all go? What other birds migrate?

In the most basic sense, birds migrate south for survival and return north to reproduce. They go to where there is sufficient food and protection. Geese, ducks and most waterfowl migrate south to seek open water where they find food and protection. If open water remains through the winter, some waterfowl may stay. Other birds do not have sufficient food sources to stay through winter since the ground is frozen and natural food sources are depleted. They know when to leave based on photo periods (amount of daylight) combined with environmental factors. Visit a bird sanctuary periodically for a few months and take note of the birds you see. Lots of questions can arise through observation. Are the same ones present? Do you see them other times of the year?

Many birds spend the winter in a variety of locations. Some will travel great distances and others will not. Many Michigan birds will travel as far as Mexico, the Caribbean and even South America. Geese and ducks may only relocate to northern territories where agricultural practices provide sufficient food. Others such as robins and woodcock fly to where the ground does not freeze so they can seek their favorite food-worms. Migration routes are typically north-south, but there are variations that take birds to the eastern U.S. coastline. Youth can enjoy drawing migration routes with different colors on maps of the United States and the northern hemisphere for various birds.

Many common Michigan birds leave for winter and return in spring. Robins, sparrows, warblers and hummingbirds are among those that leave for the comforts of a warmer climate. Chickadees, nuthatches, cardinals and blue jays are year-round residents. Other birds migrate to Michigan for the winter from northern environments. Pine siskins, dark-eyed juncos, snow buntings and crossbills are just some of the birds seen in parts of Michigan only during winter. The Peterson Field Guide to Birds and Bird Nature are good sources to locate bird migrations through Michigan. Youth can enjoy charting which birds stay or migrate along with approximate dates they depart.

Get outside and get youth excited about nature! You can start doing this by watching the skies for flights of geese and ducks. Michigan State University Extension recommends putting up feeders earlier to watch for transient birds passing through Michigan. As birds fly through they are sure to find your feeder. Keep a phenology calendar noting the arrival and departure of different bird species and then charting their dates. These make excellent 4-H club activities that can be done year after year. Ask lots of questions and encourage youth to do the same. Above all, have fun!

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