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Fall Migration and How You Can Help Migrating Birds

Posted by Jeff Tekavcic on

For ardent birders, migration season is eagerly anticipated as an opportunity to view a large number of birds in a short period of time. It is also a special time at your backyard feeder, where you can be treated to out-of-the-ordinary birds and unusual behaviours, provided you take steps to make your backyard inviting to passing migrants.

Bird migration is a true scientific wonder. From Bar-headed Geese flying over the Himalayas at altitudes of over 6000 meters to the Arctic Tern’s circumpolar migratory routes covering over 70,000 km each year, avian migratory feats can be staggering. Even the more prosaic migrations of our familiar songbirds and shorebirds can be quite remarkable. The ability for a purple martin, for example, to make a 2 to 3 month journey south to Argentina for the winter only to return the following spring to the very same nesting cavity is an astonishing act of navigation. Many aspects of how birds accomplish this type of precision remain mysterious, but this only adds to our enjoyment of the spectacle.

Why Autumn Migration is Different

Spring migration gets the lion’s share of attention as it tends to be a fast and frantic time of many species returning to their summer breeding grounds often sporting their most brilliant colours and belting out lovely and intricate mating calls. But its counterpart in the fall should not be overlooked. It is a calmer affair, characterized by more muted colourations and simpler calls. The almost frenzied search for nesting sites is replaced by a more stately southwards march to wintering grounds.

The autumn migration period is also more drawn out, with some birds starting as early as late June and others not beginning their journey until December (though the peak period is typically September and October). This makes for more opportunities to get out and enjoy the migrants. Although fall plumage can make identification more challenging, at this time of year birds tend to fly in larger flocks often comprising more than one species. Watching this interspecific behaviour is fascinating and is typically not on show in the spring.

Fall is one of the best times to catch vagrants, or ‘accidentals’ – birds that stray far outside of their ranges. This may be partially due to somewhat heavier storm activity in the fall, but it could also be due to the inexperience of juvenile birds. A vagrant can be a source of excitement among birders, but if you spot one, be sensitive and cautious. It is likely exhausted and under a great deal of stress and needs to be treated with great care.

In Your Backyard

Perhaps the most rewarding place to view the fall migration is in your very own backyard. A well-stocked feeding station and an open water source that is actively used by local birds acts as a beacon for migrants looking for hospitable refueling spots. A birdbath will even bring to your yard birds that don’t eat seeds and wouldn’t otherwise visit your feeders. Providing water for birds can also improve the quality of your backyard bird habitat and should provide you with a fantastic opportunity to observe a variety of birds.

It is very helpful at this time of year to leave fallen leaf litter on the ground. It is an important source for food and shelter for migrating birds. The decomposing plant material sustains a large number of insects which in turn provide nutrition for insectivorous birds. Moisture from rain and dew collects on fallen leaves to provide an important source of water, and the leaves provide shelter and camouflage for birds to protect them from predators. Furthermore leaves, once decomposed, are extremely beneficial to the soil and therefore provide an additional value to your garden.

Feeding in the Fall

Most importantly, do not stop feeding in the fall – as greater numbers of exhausted migrants stop by your backyard, a full feeder can be the difference between life and death. An example of excellent fall feed is suet, a high-energy formulation of fat and other ingredients that is appealing to insect-eating birds, in particular woodpeckers, nuthatches, chickadees, jays, and starlings. Wrens, creepers, kinglets, and even cardinals and some warblers occasionally visit suet feeders. Suet is a quick source of heat and energy for birds, whose metabolisms are set on fast forward. It traditionally has been used as a good substitute for the insects that birds usually feed upon but are not plentiful in colder weather. Presenting suet to your backyard birds can be as easy as putting a suet cake in a mesh bag or smearing it into the bark of a tree or log. Specially designed suet feeders are available which are attractive and easy to fill. These feeders usually provide a wire cage to hold the suet cake. Since most of the birds that are attracted to suet, usually cling to the bark of trees in search of insects, suspend your suet feeder in a tree close to the trunk, approximately 5 to 6 feet from the ground.

So although summer is over, don't be tempted to put away your bird feeders. Now is a crucial time to provide food and habitat to help migratory birds on their way.