Help for Migrating Birds

Oct 15, 2020

The fall migration is underway, with millions of birds passing through Virginia. Sandy Hausman spoke with one expert -- a rich source of surprising details about the annual trip that takes some species 12,000 miles from their arctic nesting grounds to sunny South America.

People once thought birds, like this Cape May Warbler, hibernated under water each winter.
Credit Credit Blandy Experimental Farm

For centuries, the migration of birds was a mystery to mankind.  David Carr, a research professor at UVA’s Blandy Experimental Farm, says the conventional wisdom was that birds hibernated.

“Of course people never found hibernating birds, and so it was often thought that they hibernated under water in the bottoms of rivers and streams or ponds.”

Then, in 1822, residents of a village in what is now northern Germany saw something that convinced them birds could be traveling to faraway places.

“Probably the first really hard evidence came in the 1800’s with the discovery of a stork with an arrow through its neck,” Carr says.

The arrow appeared to have come from Africa.  Today, with the help of satellite tracking and GPS, we know much more about the amazing journey of birds.

“Some of the real champs are the arctic tern," says Carr. "They migrate about 12,000 miles each way.”

Blackpoll warblers travel so far that they need to stop in Virginia to fatten up for the second leg of their trip which begins in Alaska.

“It takes them, on average, about 18 days to get from Nome to the East Coast, and then the second leg of their migration is from the East Coast to the coast of South America – Brazil, and they can do that flight, non-stop, in about 60 hours,” he explains.

Carr hopes Virginians will do more for their feathered friends – filling a bird feeder and landscaping with native plants that attract the bugs songbirds love. Too often, he adds, birds are injured by TV towers and tall buildings.

“Large antennas have guide lines that stabilize them, and the birds clip those lines as they come by, and they die by the thousands.  Similarly window kills are a really major source of migration mortality.”

Birds like this blackthroated green warbler, photographed at UVA;s Blandy Experimental Farm, face grave dangers during migration.
Credit Blandy Experimental Farm

If you see or hear a bird hit one of your windows, the Wildlife Center of Virginia invites you to call their clinic in Waynesboro.  

“It’s recommended if a bird hits a window it needs  to come in to care, because there could be internal trauma that won’t declare itself for a few days,” says Kelsey Pleasance,  a wildlife rehabilitator at the center.

She also suggests keep housecats inside to protect birds, and David Carr recommends joining a global force of citizen scientists who are tracking this year’s migration.

“Cornell University has a program called E-Bird. Anyone can get a free e-bird account, and you can post all of your bird sightings into the Cornell database, and it works really well for you.  It does a great job of keeping track of your own sightings and keeping all that organized.  I have file cabinets full of notes dating back to when I was a teenager.  I just wish they had had E-Bird back then.”

He mentions three spots where you can watch the fall migration of hawks and raptors.  Rockfish Gap in Afton, Snickers Gap in northern Virginia and Kiptopeke State Park on the Eastern Shore.  

David Carr will explore this subject further in a free talk on Friday, October 16 at 2  p.m..  To register, go to https://alumni.virginia.edu/events/event/ETloJTOQBz