For the Birds Radio Program: Warbler Massacre

Original Air Date: Sept. 25, 2003

A huge warbler migration led to a huge warbler massacre in Duluth yesterday. (Verified date)

Audio missing



Yesterday, September 24, 2003, tens of thousands of warblers—perhaps millions—gushed through the Duluth area, propelled by a cold front and high winds. These are birds that were hatched up in the Boundary Waters area and other wild forests, and found themselves in unfamiliar territory as gale-strength winds whipped and tossed them here and there. Migrating warblers generally feed during the day, and so although most of these were on the move, paralleling the shore to clear the lake, they were feeding as they went. Everywhere I looked there were warblers on people’s lawns and on roadsides. I stopped by my neighborhood coffee shop and saw two Palm Warblers on the sidewalk by the door, and a Blackpoll Warbler sitting atop the dumpster next door. The young warblers among them probably had never seen a building or car before this week, and even the adults were confronted with an impossible situation. All day long people were calling my house to tell me about dead warblers—along Highway 61 and other main roads, but also on little neighborhood side streets. They were crashing into the glass windows of the EPA lab in Duluth, and four times as I worked at my computer during the day, warblers glanced off my own office windows. Crows were picking up a lot of the dead and dying, but by late afternoon the crows were sated and still warblers were coming. I even heard from a few people who were out on the lake in boats, watching in horror as the high winds threw warblers down into the lake.

This tragic massacre is partly due to the consistently fine conditions during the breeding season this year. No serious storms, not much rain but not quite a drought, not many army worms—this was just the right kind of summer to produce maximum numbers of baby birds. But even more important than the good production was the weather this past week, sending a huge number of migrants toward the Lake Superior shore and then dashing them out of control with the high winds. I saw a similar tragic event back on September 25, 1991, in what I then called the “Great Highway 61 Warbler Massacre.” This time I’m afraid that even more birds were lost than then, because my phone was ringing all day with people concerned about all the dead birds, and three people came to my door with dazed and stunned little Yellow-rumped Warblers that they’d found. Fortunately, all three came to and were released, but other birds with minor concussions weren’t so lucky—as I drove to down Arlington Avenue, I watched one stunned little warbler hopping in the opposite lane as a crow swooped down and plucked it up.

Right now the Duluth area is under consideration as a state-wide Important Bird Area because it is such a uniquely critical migratory corridor for so many birds. I don’t know that public awareness and concern about birds is ever going to reach a point where on these extraordinary days, we can temporarily lower speed limits—it would be nice if we could just slow down when we see so many birds on the roads, but I didn’t notice anyone besides me reducing their speed. God may take notice of the fall of a sparrow, but it’s up to us to actually keep these little birds from being run over by cars and developing window technology that either helps make the windows more visible to birds or reduces the shock when they do collide. Today a lot of these birds are still passing through. Let’s all do what little we can to help assure their safe passage through our area.