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Fall Bird Migration

By Stephanie Kozak, Interpreter

As the days grow shorter and the weather cools down, excitement for fall festivities grows and visions of cider, donuts, pumpkins, and hayrides start dancing in our heads. When the months get colder around the Metroparks, the human visitors start to bundle up, but the animals that call the Metropark habitats home have different plans.

As the summer winds down and fall takes over animals start preparing for the winter. One strategy for animals to survive the winter is migration. It is a common assumption that migration is solely due to the weather, but there are several factors that determine migration. Some animals migrate to breed, some to find more favorable living conditions, but most migrate to find food. The harsh winters of southeastern Michigan freeze our waters and strip our vegetation. These conditions make it almost impossible for our foragers and water dwellers to find the food they need to survive. Of the three types of animals that migrate in Michigan—birds, bats and insects—birds boast the largest number of species that complete the task each year.

Less than half the bird species in the United States are year-round residents of their home range. This means that most birds in our country are migrating. Some species are migrating short distances, from county to county or from higher elevation to lower elevation, such as the Red-winged Blackbird. Some species migrate moderate distances, from state to state, such as the Eastern Bluebird. The truly impressive species are those migrating great distances from country to country, such as the Great Blue Heron. These birds migrate from their breeding homes in the United States to Central and South America to avoid the dwindling food supply as winter approaches. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has researched that of the over 650 species of birds that inhabit our country, over 350 of those species migrate these great distances.

Shorter days, decreasing temperatures and diminishing food supplies in the fall serve as a signal to these species to start their long journey. Many young bird species, including the Sandhill Crane, stay with their parents for the first year and migrate with their parents in the fall and spring. After only making the trip once, the young will remember how to get there and back without their parents. Scientists are still researching how other bird species migrate their first year without their parents, including the Indigo Bunting. Many researchers say that this ability is part of the DNA for these species of birds. In recent years, there is research that shows they also use the patterns of the stars and sun to orient themselves north or south and that odors and landscape features are used to help guide their way. During their first migration, they may not seem like they have a clear direction, but amazingly they can migrate to the same area as their fellow species, and continue to migrate to the same locations year after year. Yet, much of the science behind bird migration navigation is still a mystery.

Climate change effects many of our migrating bird species, and migration research is on the forefront of many birding organizations efforts. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has created an impressive resource to study migration called BirdCast ( This publicly geared, and easy to use, website boasts live migration maps, migration forecast maps, and offers updates on when certain species of birds are most likely to be in your region.

Your Metroparks offer a resting stopover for migrators, a half-year home for migrators from elsewhere, and are impressive landscapes under migration flyways. Add a new fall tradition to your list and get outdoors to experience fall migration yourself. Find out more about fall migration and the best locations to spot birds from your Metroparks Interpreters.

Kensington Metropark Nature Center is hosting the Kensington Birding Club on October 5, 2019 for those interested in finding out more about local birding and spotting birds in Kensington Metropark.

Hudson Mills Metropark is hosting Fall Birding on October 6, 2019 those interested in learning more about bird migration through a trail hike, games and hands-on activities.

Or learn more about all Metropark programs at


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