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Migration starvation

Ranger Steve’s Nature Niche

Ranger Steve Mueller

By Ranger Steve Mueller


Recent migrants passing through Ody Brook include Hermit Thrush, Common Raven, and Ruby-crowned Kinglet. Two Dark-eyed Juncos (Slate-colored) arrived on October 16 and they might stay for the winter. I have been looking for species that migrate here from northern areas to claim the sanctuary as a winter residence. 

Many birds that spend the breeding season here have left for southern areas where food will be available to sustain them until next year’s breeding season. Some require active insects for their diet. Recently I saw an American Robin in the Big Field that appeared to have difficulty flying. Its right wing appeared to have a problem. As I walked on Ody Brook Trail, it flew about 50 feet at a time and worked its way into the big woods. 

Other robins migrated and left this one behind. Unless it finds a swamp rich with berries, it will likely perish unless it recovers from its wing problem. I found a Rusty Blackbird by one of our ponds with a broken wing. It was able to hop about and feed during the fall but once winter set in, I am sure it starved. The flock of Rusty Blackbirds continued migration without the bird. 

Witnessing isolated problems for birds occurs but we do not see those that starve during long migration flights. Frequently published are bird deaths caused by things we can prevent but starvation hazards birds encounter in route to a winter residence are seldom mentioned. 

A major cause of bird deaths is a result of domestic cat predators, collision with windows, and genetically modified seeds with herbicide tolerance. The genetically modified seeds can grow in fields where herbicide use is increased. Wild plants in crop fields and surrounding edges are killed. Fewer wild plants reduces insect populations. Bird populations depending on insects are more likely to starve on migration.

The use of neonicotinoids have raised concerns regarding adverse ecological effects, including honey-bee colony collapse disorder and of loss of birds due to a reduction in insect populations. Studies indicate there has been a nearly 50 percent reduction in insect populations since 1976. There are many causes for the reduction and it is not responsible to place the reduction completely on crop ready herbicides or the use of neonicotinoids. 

I mentioned in last week’s article that manicured lawn proliferation and wild habitat reduction for agriculture are likely major sources for insect and bird deaths. We can do some things that help birds by allowing portions of our yards to support native plants. This will support native insects that support migrating birds. 

Think beyond wildflowers. Without changing ordinances in some communities, people are not allowed to grow fields of native flowers. Some regulations do not allow tall plants and require yards to be cut short. Neighbors often consider wildflowers weeds. My brother allows milkweeds to grow in his backyard to help Monarch butterflies. His neighbor wants them cut because he thinks they look ugly. He says the name indicates it is a weed. The neighbor does not want my brother helping Monarchs survive. Removing milkweeds will cause Monarchs to starve during the summer and result in a reduced population for the fall migration to Mexico. 

Planting native shrubs and trees is one way to help insect and bird populations increase. Some people think all insects bite people, spread diseases, or destroy desired plants. The dangerous Eastern Equine Encephalitis (EEE) frightened many of us. It was a real life-threatening concern but such diseases are unusual. The few insects that cause such problems are the ones we notice. Most insects that inhabit native shrubs and trees go unnoticed by us but are food for insect and bird predators. They help prevent migration starvation.

I have seen 132 bird species at Ody Brook. Depending on the size of your yard and how many native species you allow, will determine the number of birds that will share your property with you. Help reduce migration starvation by having a nature niche friendly landscape. Many ornamental plants do not support insects and birds. They are often quite beautiful, so plant some, but also maintain native plants to enrich your yard health. 

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at odybrook@chartermi.net – Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary, 13010 Northland Dr. Cedar Springs, MI 49319 or call 616-696-1753.

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