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For The Birds

By: Sandra Nelson

birds flying

I was absentmindedly browsing through some internet articles last night when a rather bizarre fact caught my attention. According to. BirdCast which is published by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, 443,900 birds crossed over Missouri the night of November 6, 2023 and a total of 5,788,600 birds were in flight. The random facts immediately sparked so many questions:  How do they know the number of birds flying across an entire state on any given day?  What kind of birds were they?  Where were they from?  Where were they going? How far does a migrating bird travel in a day? Being an avid armchair birdwatcher, I couldn’t resist digging just a little deeper to find some answers to my questions . What I found both saddened and encouraged me. 


Earlier this year, the New York Times reported that ,”Since 1970, nearly three billion birds have vanished from the skies over North America.”  Researchers at Cornell Lab of Ornithology surmised  that the vast majority of those losses were within migratory species. In other words, birds were either dying as they traveled to their dead bird summer or winter destinations, or when they  arrived and found their natural habitats had changed. Determined to find answers, Cornell’s Ornithology Studies began teaming with national and international organizations to find explanations and solutions. As part of their collaboration efforts, BirdCast was born. 


Using the US weather surveillance radar network, BirdCast was designed to predict in real time when, where   and  radar stationhow far birds will be flying on any given night. The data would be used to not   just track bird patterns and numbers, but to link migration patterns to   environmental changes due to climate shifts and human interventions and to   provide science based recommendations for protecting bird species.


Almost half of the 900+ species of North American birds migrate to Central and South America in the winter months. The rest are categorized as permanent residents (think Cardinals here in the Midwest),  cardinalsshort distance migrants (those who remain in the general area, but may, for example, change elevations) and medium distance migrants who travel just a few hundred miles at most.  Most bird species migrate at night when the atmosphere tends to be more stable and the stars and moon are available for navigation. Others that are strong flyers, like geese, hawks and hummingbirds, migrate   during daylight hours so that they can take advantage of thermal wind currents. A bird may travel   anywhere from 15 to 600 miles in a 24 hour period. 

Regardless of their migratory status –  permanent resident to long distance traveler, all birds have some basic winter needs that we humans on the ground can provide. 


Put out high energy food early in the morning. 

bird feeder at dawnIn order to stay warm through cold winter nights, birds rely on their energy reserves. Replenishing those reserves early in the morning helps them refuel for the day.  Suet, peanut pieces and sunflower chips are three easy to eat, high fat foods that give quick energy boosts to birds.


Feed on the ground as well as in feeders.

birdsNot all birds will eat at high hanging feeders. Some species, like doves and quail, are ground eaters.  They will flock to a consistent ground level buffet. 


Provide fresh water.

bird bath winterWhen their usual water supply freezes, birds have difficulty finding water.  Consider adding a heater to your bird bath to make sure there is always drinkable water available.


Refill feeders daily.  

filling feederTo make sure that your evening and night time visitors have enough high-energy food to keep them warm or keep them flying, refill empty or nearly empty feeders. 

Vary the height and locations of feeders on your property.

feedersDifferent species of birds have different feeding preferences so you’ll likely attract a wider variety of birds if you cater to their needs. Placing feeders near trees and shrubs also gives feeding birds access to protection from predators.


Offer a variety of food.

bird foodIf space and feeders are available, consider filling each feeder with a different choice of food. The greater variety in food choice, the more species you are likely to attract. Mixing seed types in one feeder can also encourage visitors.


Remove snow and ice from feeders.

feeder in snowFeeder ports can easily clog with snow and ice, especially after major storms blow through. Brushing off snow and ice after a storm allows birds to eat when they need the energy the most.


Keep cats indoors.

catsIt is estimated that cats, especially feral ones, kill 1.3 to 4 billion birds a year. An individual, outdoor cat, on average, kills 30 to 48 birds per year. 


Leave the seed heads of flowers standing.

bird on flowerDried seed pods offer nutritionally dense food options for birds. Hiding insects may be an added food bonus for the seed seeking birds.


Turn off unnecessary lights, especially during migratory seasons.

city lightsExtraneous light can confuse migratory birds, pushing them off their natural course, or can keep them trapped in a high light area where they will continuously circle until they fall from exhaustion. Resident birds can also be attracted to bright lights, causing them to return to areas that are often food deserts for them


Create a Bird Haven

birds in bushAdding evergreens and deciduous trees and shrubs (especially native varieties) to your landscape offers birds places to perch during the day and to shelter from the elements at night.  Being able to stay out  of direct winds helps to conserve their limited energy. If the shrubs happen to have berries, that's an extra bonus for our feathered friends.


Reduce Window Collisions

dead bird300 million birds die each year from collisions with windows and buildings.  A bird simply cannot understand that glass is an immovable barrier so it continues on its flight path. The high velocity impact then either kills the bird instantly or often results in injuries that it succumbs to later.  Adding decals or other treatments to clear glass windows can significantly reduce bird/glass encounters.




bird eating bug

Since the late 1960s,  15 of our bird species have already become extinct. Currently,  89 additional species are considered either threatened or endangered.  In a purely practical view, each species loss  has an economic cost. Birds help control unwanted insect populations, eating over 550 tons of insects each year. They pollinate both flowers and food crops. They disperse seeds and some species are experts at cleaning up roadkill or keeping unwanted mice and rats away.

If we look beyond the purely practical aspects however, we find that birds offer us so much more.  They are our pollution control experts as alert us to contaminants in the environment.  They are our health advocates as they predict onsets of epidemics. They  are our teachers, as they keep us aware of the health of our  since they are so quick to respond to changes in the environment. Most importantly though, they add a touch of beauty and joy to our lives as we watch their antics and listen to their songs. 

winter birds