Most mornings on my days off, I’m easy to find… Sleeping in is a luxury I take advantage of whenever possible! I will, however, leap right out of bed during the peak of migration season. The goal is to get out the door with binoculars as soon as the sun is up. Wood warblers are the bright little stars of spring migration season. Feathers are looking their best for breeding season, with buttercup yellows, flame orange, stark contrasts of black and white and yellow…  one look and you might just catch migration fever.

cerulean warbler

Cerulean Warbler. Photo Courtesy of Terrence Peck.

Ohio birders are very lucky, as the northwest areas around the Lake Erie shore are known as the “warbler capital of the world.” People come from as far as South Africa, Australia, and many European countries (as well as all over the US) to Magee Marsh during April and May. The tiny warblers use their own two wings to travel 2,000+ miles to their breeding habitats.

Can you imagine traveling over 2000 miles on your own two feet? Given such a challenge, it’s not surprising that warblers and other migratory birds will encounter injury and hardship along their journey. Cornell University estimates that 85% of songbirds die as a result of the physical stress encountered during migration. Survival of the fittest can quickly weed out many of the weaker birds!

If physical stress of migration was the only challenge, migratory birds would be in great shape. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Over 50% of migrating bird species have been declining over the last 40 years. For example, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey, the rusty blackbird population has declined 94% since 1966. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, cerulean warblers have been declining by 3% per year since that time as well. Many factors could be contributing to the decline, but two main concerns are habitat loss and pesticide use.

If you were a tired, weary bird flying over central Ohio on your way to Canada, where would you stop to rest? Hopefully you could find something better than a parking lot! City parks, cemeteries, stream side corridors, wooded ravines and even your backyard can help a migratory bird survive another day of a long trip. The quality of habitat available makes a huge impact on whether or not migratory birds arrive in good shape for breeding, or even survive their long journey.

prothonotary warbler

Prothonotary Warbler. Photo courtesy of Terrence Peck.

Native, mature hardwood trees ensure there are plenty of insects to eat, such as protein-rich caterpillars. Warblers and other insect-eating birds help keep insect populations in balance, which helps our trees survive. Running water is an added bonus, as this will increase diversity of plants and insects in an area.

Here are a few easy ways you can help migratory birds this spring:

Look for shade-grown coffee beans

“Over 60 percent of the cerulean’s wintering habitat has been converted from native tropical forest to pastures and farms. The rate of clearing is declining because much of what remains is on steep slopes. Ceruleans do use shade-grown coffee plantations but some of those plantations are being converted to sun-grown coffee, which ceruleans do not use.” (US Fish and Wildlife Service)

If you would like to help the cerulean warbler (as well as other birds, wildlife, and coffee farmers), look for organic shade-grown beans where you buy your coffee. If they don’t have it, ask them to stock it and tell them why it’s important. Many retailers are interested in offering more “green” earth-friendly products. You could also buy straight from the source: Grounds for Change.

Use native plants in your yard

Native plants bring native insects which help birds and other wildlife while also keeping our ecosystem in balance. Check out our Wildlife Friendly Yard series to learn more.

Protect and preserve

If we protect and preserve the natural areas already present in our cities and suburbs, we can help these birds survive their long journey. Of course it not only helps the birds! People and their pets all benefit from quality time in the outdoors. Get out to your favorite local park to enjoy this gorgeous spring weather! You might even see a warbler visiting from Brazil, Chile, or Costa Rica! – Colleen Sharkey

Colleen Sharkey has been a nature enthusiast and informal educator for more than 10 years. She lives in Columbus, near a couple of beautiful ravines that offer habitat to everything from nesting barred owls and red foxes to migrating warblers. Colleen is currently a Naturalist with Columbus and Franklin County Metro Parks.