Fall Migration- Exceptions to the Rule
Insect and nectar eaters like hummingbirds, orioles, house wrens, warblers, tanagers, catbirds, and towhees fly south in fall. Seed eaters like cardinals, chickadees, nuthatches, titmice, blue jays, and finches stay. The rules for migration are simple. Right?
As a general rule, summer food preferences are reliable predictors of fall migratory behavior, but just like in school, the exceptions can sometimes seem more numerous and more instructive than the general rule. Which of these exceptional fall and winter visitors will you have in your backyard this year?
Robins and bluebirds. These two members of the thrush family are commonly considered spring and summer birds, but neither is a true migrator. Switching diet from worms and insects to fruits and berries, it is quite common for both of these birds to overwinter in our area, especially during mild winters. Male bluebirds are particularly winter hardy- returning to defend nesting territories in early February, even in harsh winters. If you see a midwinter flock of robins eating crabapples or berries look carefully for a flash of blue, indicating that their bluebird cousins have joined the feast.
Juncos and Redpoles. Ground feeding juncos routinely arrive at (or under) our backyard feeders every fall and leave each spring. Do they fly south in the spring and north in the fall? Of course not! These hardy “snowbirds” cross the Great Lakes each spring to nest in Canada- as far north as the Hudson Bay area- and then return each fall to winter in our “balmy” Northeastern Ohio backyards. Even hardier, the finch-like Common Redpole summers and nests in the arctic tundra, moving south to the Hudson Bay area during the winter. Only the most extreme arctic cold spells will initiate an “irruption” with redpoles crossing into Ohio where they will enjoy the southern hospitality of your backyard thistle feeder.
Woodpeckers. Like other insect eating birds, you might predict that Ohio’s woodpecker populations would migrate for the winter, and except for two species, Northern Flicker and Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker, most of our summer populations will head south during winter. our other common backyard woodpeckers, Downey, Hairy, Red-Bellied, and Pileated continue to feed on insects all winter using their unique bills to extract ants and wood boring larvae from trees, as well as supplementing this insect diet with fruits, berries, acorns, nuts, and, of course, suet from your backyard feeders.
Owls. Although many hawks, vultures, and some owl species move south during fall migration in search of more abundant prey, we have three species of owls that are commonly found in our backyards all year around- Eastern Screech Owl, Great Horned Owl, and Barred Owl. Winter is also a good time to watch for less frequently observed owl visitors, such as the Snowy Owl, a spectacular Canadian irruptive, in search of warmer weather and more abundant prey.