Earlier this winter a flock of Sandhill Cranes made their presence known in my neighborhood. Making their loud, easily recognizable call, these birds made their way south for the winter. Witnessing the considerable number of cranes spanning across the sky made me more curious about where some of our feathered friends spend the winter and how far some species travel to escape the freezing elements.
Sandhill Cranes flying over my yard during their migration.
Some birds, such as cardinals, are commonly seen in the winter. The Cardinal, on a snow covered tree scene, can be found in paintings, photos and Christmas cards.
After researching, I was surprised just how many birds stay for the frigid cold we often experience. Some birds that often stick around for winter include goldfinches, blue jays, bluebirds, crows, ravens, blackbirds, Canada geese, Woodpeckers, Nuthatches, Sparrows, Black-capped Chickadees, Pigeons, and Doves.
The birds that do stay have some pretty clever ways of keeping warm. First of all, birds often molt into their winter plumage, which may contain twice as many feathers as they have in summer. But what about their bare feet? Though we certainly wouldn’t want to go a winter without shoes, bird feet are mostly tough tissue and bone which are covered in scales. Despite all of this, winter is usually a hard time for birds. Food may be inadequate, temperatures can take sudden plunges and since they fly, storing fat is not much of an option.
Migrating birds often have a route that they use from year to year. The paths migratory birds take are called flyways. Some extend over many countries as pictured below.
The world record of the longest bird migration is awarded to the Arctic Tern with a distance of 50,700 miles! This bird should certainly be recognized for such an amazing feat, especially since the Blue Grouse, holding the world’s record for the shortest migration, only journeys a measly .19 miles.
How do birds know when to migrate? The answer to this question is still somewhat of a mystery, but weather changes, day length and change of food availability can trigger the desire to start their trip. Though still partially unknown, how they navigate to their winter or summer destination is amazing. Keeping track of landmarks helps in migration as well as the sun, stars, and earth's magnetic field. Though God equipped these birds with the knowledge they need to travel thousands of miles, migration has become more dangerous as people build up cities. Thousands of birds are killed each year by running into buildings. This may seem strange since birds can fly in and out of trees without running into branches, but being attracted to the lights in buildings is what causes these deaths. Deforestation has made migration even worse for birds by eliminating resting and feeding stops.
Thankfully, many people help birds every year by putting out food and water and growing plants and trees that birds like. For those of you who have bird feeders, they are most useful to birds in the fall, winter, and early spring. If you want to feed birds during the winter, start in fall. Birds don’t venture far during cold weather to save energy. They mostly fly to places they know food will be and filling feeders in the fall will clue them in. If you do put out food in the winter be sure not to stop half way through the season. Birds may be depending on your feeders to survive.
There are pros and cons to migrating and being a year round resident. Birds are able to bare the elements and fly staggering distances. For such a small creature it is capable of so much.
This website has multiple recordings of the calling of sandhill cranes.