Migration is an exciting time for birders. But when can you expect your favorite songbirds to arrive along their migratory routes? Not all birds migrate at the same time or pace. Understanding the timing of songbird migration can help you prepare for the return of your favorite birds.
When Birds Migrate
Depending on the species, overall ranges, geography, and available resources, birds actually migrate every day of the year. Species that have further to travel, such as shorebirds that breed in Arctic habitats, or birds with longer egg incubation and parental care periods, such as larger raptors, often begin migrating earlier than many other birds. Spring and fall are when most birds are on the move, however, particularly songbirds.
See also: Does Feeding Birds Hinder Migration?
Songbirds are some of the most highly anticipated migrants. Many birders gauge the seasons by the presence or absence of warblers, tanagers, buntings, grosbeaks, orioles, vireos, and thrushes. These birds depend on adequate food supplies to fuel their migration. For songbirds, that means insects and grubs, as well as flower buds that will attract those essential sources of protein. When insect populations begin to boom in springtime, songbirds will be arriving. When those insect populations decline in fall, songbirds will leave.
In southern areas with mild climates, songbirds may begin their spring migration as soon as late February or early March. They will advance their travels as the winter weather recedes and northern insect populations increase. By late April or mid-May, they will have reached the northern extent of their breeding ranges.
Reversing their travels in autumn, songbirds start leaving their northern ranges in late August or mid-September, making their way to more lush southern regions that can support their winter needs. These birds will typically arrive at their wintering ranges by late October or early November.
While traveling, many factors affect a songbird’s pace. In spring, early migrants tend to travel more slowly, stopping frequently along the way to refuel and wait for better weather to prevail. If the birds are migrating later in the season, however, their stops are less frequent and they will move on more quickly so they can reach their breeding grounds in time to successfully attract a mate and raise a brood. In autumn, the same principle applies. Birds that begin migrating sooner often have a more relaxed travel pace, while later migrants travel more quickly.
Helping Migratory Songbirds
The migration journey is a dangerous one. There are many things backyard birders can do to help birds make it safely between their wintering grounds and breeding grounds, no matter when the birds make the trip.
Keeping bird feeders available and filled with nutritious, high-energy food such as suet and sunflower seeds will give birds a safe place to refuel. Planting the yard with native landscaping will attract migratory birds with familiar shelter. Minimizing pesticide use will keep insect populations thriving for birds to seek out their preferred protein sources. Every birder should take steps to keep cats out of the yard and protect tired birds from hungry predators. Turning off outdoor lights on porches, decks, patios, and around pools will also help migratory birds—that navigate in part by using stars and constellations—find their way more easily.
Migration is an amazing spectacle in spring and fall, and birders who understand when songbirds are on the move can more easily take steps to help each bird along on its journey.