For the Birds Radio Program: Migration Report

Original Air Date: April 3, 1989

What birds are back in the Northland? Laura Erickson gives a report on today’s “For the Birds.”

Audio missing


Spring Migration

(Recording of Trillium singing “Red Red Robin”)

Yes, the red red robins are back. Charlene Miller told me she had one on March 26th and again on the 27th, and since then several other people have reported them. Charlene’s husband Dale had an even more encouraging bit of proof that spring is really here–he spotted a butterfly in their Duluth yard. I expected it to be a Mourning Cloak, the species that usually turns up first in spring, but oddly enough it wasn’t–it sounds exactly like a Monarch. Spring butterflies are often too fragile to withstand Mother Nature’s April Fool’s Jokes on the Northland, but here’s hoping that one makes it.

Robins tend to follow the 37 degree isotherm on their migration, which carried some of them up this year while there was still quite a bit of snow on the ground. They are much hardier than butterflies—not only are birds warm-blooded, but they’re also well insulated. People associate robins with earthworms, but before worms start moving through the thawed surface soil, robins will be able to eat berries and crab apples left over from fall, and any early insects that appear. Robins occasionally appear at feeding stations for applesauce, grape jelly, or raisins–the only trick is getting them to notice the food in the first place. Because they don’t eat seeds, they usually stay away from feeders.

Canada Geese also follow the 37 degree isotherm, so we should be hearing them soon, too. Crows and Bald Eagles are back in good numbers now, and a few red-wings and killdeers have also been heard in northland marshes. The first red-wings always return to marshes. The vanishing wetlands mean that most marsh bird numbers are also dwindling, but red-wings have managed to adapt to other habitats as well, so once the marshes are filled up to capacity with red-wings, some of them will come to more urban and agricultural settings. The most pitiful red-wings I know are the two males that always appear at the tiny marsh in the bank parking lot across Arrowhead Road from the Kenwood Shopping Mall. Last year that polluted little marsh only held two cattails tall enough for red-wings to use as display perches. As long as we’re willing to sell out our wetlands to anyone who says the magic word “jobs,” we’ll continue to see fewer and fewer waterbirds, and at the same time our own groundwater will become worse and worse for human consumption.

Warm weather—that is, anything above 32 degrees—means bacteria and microbes can multiply again, so make sure you clean up around your feeder soon if you haven’t already. The kinds of fungus that can grow on sunflower seeds and shells can be toxic to birds, and you hardly want to poison the birds you draw into your yard. Some people stop feeding when the snow disappears, but spring migration is an exciting time to watch new arrivals every day at a feeding station, so I keep mine going. Migration is a major stress to birds, and the intense drive to get back on territory and mate often brings birds back here before the food supply or weather are really suitable. Feeders are especially helpful to migrants when a sudden cold front hits—for most species the migratory instinct won’t let them turn around and head south again, and without enough food for even a single day they easily die. This is also a good time to set out bluebird and martin houses. Even before the dandelions pop out, there’s plenty of spring activities to keep you outdoors with your eyes skyward.

(Recording of Trillium)

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”