Migratory Birds in the Fall

Although summer is in full swing, some species of birds, particularly shorebirds, are already migrating south in preparation for cooler weather. August through October, however, is the most popular time for migratory birds to move south for the winter. Birds traveling a shorter distance tend to leave later, with some species choosing to leave in December.

There are a number of variables that come into effect, like specific instincts inherent to particular species of birds, distance and weather conditions. These factors make it difficult to pin down an exact migratory date for any given species, but general patterns can be studied year after year. To birders, people who study and watch migratory birds in flight, it is interesting to witness the changing nature of migratory patterns. More species are choosing to travel at night or take fewer or more breaks during their travel period. Birders typically gather in areas with a noticeably concentrated population of migratory birds, such as the coastlines and ridges, due to changes in pressure that allow birds to soar further and faster with minimal effort.

Chicago is located in the Mississippi Flyway, which extends from northwest Canada all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. With more than 250 species of birds using this flyway, it is important that human life doesn’t interfere with migration. The Lake Michigan coastline plays an essential role in this flyway, as well. Many birds take breaks along their migration route, and people should take precautions when migratory species choose to stop in the urban Chicagoland area.


Here are 10 ways to help migratory birds this fall:

  1. Keep your cat indoors – this is the best for both the cat and the birds. Even well fed cats kill birds, and bells on cats don’t effectively warn birds of cat strikes.
  2. Prevent birds from hitting your windows by using a variety of treatments to the glass on your home. Check out some tips here.
  3. Eliminate pesticides from your yard. Even pesticides that are not directly toxic to birds can pollute waterways and reduce insects that birds rely on for food.
  4. Create a backyard habitat. If you have a larger yard, create a diverse landscape by planting native grasses, flowers and scrubs that attract native birds. You will be rewarded by their beauty and song, and there will be fewer insect pests as a result.
  5. Keep feeders and bird baths clean. This will help prevent the presence of diseases and mosquitoes.
  6. Donate old bird-watching equipment such as binoculars or spotting scopes to local bird-watching groups. These organizations can get the equipment to schools or biologists in other countries in need of these materials.
  7. Reduce your carbon footprint. Use a hand-pushed or electric lawnmower, carpool, install low energy bulbs and Energy Star appliances. Contact your energy supplier and ask them about purchasing your energy from renewable sources.
  8. Buy organic food and shade-grown coffee. Pesticides that are commonly used in food production can be toxic to birds and other animals. An increase in organic farming will help reduce the use of these hazardous chemicals in the U.S. and abroad. Shade coffee plantations maintain large trees that provide essential habitats for wintering songbirds.
  9. Support bird friendly legislation, both locally and nationally.
  10. Join a bird conservation group. Learn more about birds and play a role in the important conservation initiatives and projects that these organizations are involved with.

Birds face several threats when it comes to migration:

  • Exhaustion – this leads to decreased alertness, increasing the likelihood of collisions with obstacles or faltering in flight. This becomes even more likely when passing through storms or unfavorable wind patterns. Birds migrating late in the season have a higher chance of becoming exhausted, as they must cover more ground each day to reach their destination.
  • Starvation – inadequate food supplies leads to starvation among migrating birds every year. This is largely due to habitat destruction that deprives birds of feeding opportunities along their migration paths. Starvation could also be caused from greater feeding competition among large masses of migratory birds.
  • Collisions – thousands of birds collide with obstacles mid-flight during both spring and fall migrations. The majority of these collisions cause fatal injuries. Even if the birds are not killed on impact or from their injuries, stunned birds are more susceptible to predators. The most common hazardous obstacles to migrating birds are tall buildings, electrical wires and poles, wind turbines and similar structures.
  • Predators – predators kill hundreds of thousands of birds each year, and during migration, birds may be unaware of local predators at stopovers during their trip. Outdoor and feral cats are the most common predators that threaten migrating birds.
  • Disease – when gathering in large flocks, disease outbreaks can be devastating to migratory birds. The effects can be even more detrimental when surviving birds carry the illness to breeding grounds or densely populated winter ranges.
  • Pollution – pollution from lead poisoning and oil spills affects both local and migratory bird populations. Polluted habitats provide less food, and birds that ingest toxins during migration may continue to suffer from the poisonous effects longer after leaving the area.
  • Natural Disasters – hurricanes, blizzards, wildfires and other natural disasters can destroy crucial stopover and rest sites while also eliminating food sources. These conditions are also dangerous to fly in; birds are susceptible to singed feathers from wildfires or freezing during early or late blizzards.
  • Hunting – hunting seasons typically coincide with migration periods, adding in another unpredictable condition to an already treacherous journey. Illegal hunting and poaching, including hunters that mistakenly and inadvertently shoot protected birds, also threaten migratory birds.
  • Inexperience – many juvenile birds make these long journeys without adult guidance, and they may not be able to complete their trips if they are unsuccessful in finding adequate food or from straying too far from the appropriate migration path.
  • Ignorance – a more informed public can better appreciate the threats that birds face during migration. With greater awareness, birds should have a better chance of survival, as more sufficient steps will be taken to protect the species during migration.

To learn more about migratory birds, visit the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s website. More information about the critical roles that Lake Michigan and Chicago play in both the spring and fall bird migration is available here.

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