The Wild Side: Where do all the feathered snowbirds go?
Is anyone else sick of talking about the weather? I considered writing another article about wildlife and cold, but there is plenty of winter left to do that. I was on a farmer’s property recently doing some habitat work, when he told me that in a few days he was taking the whole family to Jamaica.
The temperature was -15, and the wind was howling. Jokingly, I asked “why would you leave all this for Jamaica?” His response: “This weather is no good for ice fishing.”
This brought to mind some of our wildlife that migrates to avoid our winter weather. I thought I would tell you where some of our Wisconsin “snowbirds” are spending their time right now. Not just our retired residents currently in Florida, Arizona or Jamaica. Of Wisconsin’s 238 bird species, more than half head to Latin America before the snow flies. We have a large number of birds that arrive in the spring, build their nests, raise their young, then fly south–sometimes thousands of miles south–to wait out the winter.
The Baltimore Oriole, for example, arrives in Wisconsin in late April or early May. By mid-August they are working their way south, flying at night and resting during the day. The trip will be more than 2,000 miles, and could include flying over a portion of the Gulf of Mexico. These birds will travel to southern Mexico or even to northern South America to spend the winter in partially forested locations, lowland forests or shade-grown coffee plantations. They arrive in mid-October, and will stay until sometime in March, when they head back to the Midwest.
The Golden-winged Warbler is another example. This bird’s population is diminishing, but Wisconsin is an important stronghold–25 percent of the world’s population of this bird breeds here. Our young forest species, like aspen and tag alder, in combination with oak trees and other high quality forest habitat components, make Wisconsin a great place for these birds to raise their young. In the winter, though, they head south to Nicaragua, Costa Rica and even northern Columbia. Indigo buntings, alder flycatchers, yellow warblers, common yellowthroats, and chestnut-sided warblers are other examples of birds that breed in the early successional forests of Wisconsin and winter in Central America.
I used to think of Central America as vast, untamed jungle, but I have learned that this is not the case. In fact, much of the area has been cleared for agriculture and development. There is a place where the jungle is still untamed, though, called the Osa peninsula. This area is not terribly large, about 700 square miles; by comparison, Oneida County is 1,236 square miles, almost twice the size of the Osa.
Yet the Osa provides critical old growth rain forest habitat for hundreds of species of birds, including 55 that breed in Wisconsin, including those I mentioned earlier. Because habitat has been disappearing so rapidly in Central America, and because we are undeniably linked by our birds to this habitat, Wisconsin conservation groups are funding efforts to protect this critical habitat by acquiring blocks of forest in the Osa and by funding reforestation work in the area.
Even though you may not migrate, there are little things you can do to help protect these birds from right here in the Northwoods. For example, you can buy shade grown coffee. Check to see if your coffee has identification showing it as rainforest certified, shade grown, or otherwise wildlife friendly.
Coffee is big business, and you can direct your drink dollars to restoring forests. You can also donate directly through local efforts, like the Natural Resources Foundation Osa project. To learn more, go to www.wisconservation.org/osa-project. We can work together to spend our money wisely and pool our resources to help protect the habitat our breeding birds need to survive the winter.
By the way—the forecast for Costa Rica? Mid-70s and sunny today.
Jeremy Holtz is a wildlife biologist with the Wisconsin DNR and writes a weekly column in the Star Journal. To contact him, call 715-365-8999.