Headed South: Migrating Michigan Birds


It’s that time of year when you can spot waterfowl hunters from a mile away. Standing motionless with their gaze fixed on grey flannel skies, they appear caught in some sort of trance as they watch the numerous V-shaped flocks of geese and ducks streak overhead. Where are they all going? Which birds migrate? And why do they leave town in the first place? These are questions you might wonder for yourself, or perhaps an inquiring youth hunter may have about these events. Either way, this is a great opportunity to educate, and maybe even get somebody new interested in waterfowl hunting!

As for why birds head south this time of year (other than to bask in the tropical sun), the Michigan State University Extension offers the following explanation:

“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.”

Read more from MSU here.

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