Zugunruhe

I didn’t misspell the title of this blog. It is a word German behavioral scientists coined meaning “migratory restlessness”, referring to a period in the spring and fall when caged, migratory species they were studying repeatedly fluttered towards one side of their cage. The birds just knew it was time to migrate.

Almost every day in the spring, I try to spend a little time outside seeing what’s flying, and hearing what’s singing. Each morning, I head outdoors with binoculars to see what has freshly arrived from tropical America. Monday, April 27th, it was a singing Wood Thrush, my first of the year. I couldn’t help but think about the ones I saw last November on the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico, on their wintering grounds, where the bird on my property might have wintered. The Wood Thrush I found had flown from Central America, across the gulf of Mexico, up through the United States and into Pennsylvania. I don’t know if this bird will stay here all summer. Maybe it kept going north.

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher at Ashland Nature Center, May 4, 2020. Here, you can see it is collecting nesting material from a tent caterpillar web. Submitted to this eBird checklist.

Migration is an amazing and mysterious thing. How do the birds know where to go? When to leave? And how on earth do they find their way?? One thing is clear… most of it is unclear. Many mysteries remain, and lots of study is taking place about bird migration to help conserve species, many of which are in trouble. Cornell does a good job summarizing bird migration here.

I photographed this Veery at Ashland Nature Center on May 4, 2020, and it appears on the same checklist as the Gnatcatcher above. This species of Thrush has flown all the way from its wintering grounds in the Amazon rainforest of South America.

Birds face tremendous risks during migration, and humans have made it harder for them. Obstacles like tall buildings, communication towers, vast agricultural areas, outdoor cats, vehicles, wind turbines, etc, kill millions upon millions of birds annually. A recent study has found that communication towers alone kill approximately 6.8 million birds per year, mostly migrants, and predominantly from very tall towers for television, radio, and other communications.

This photo of a Great Crested Flycatcher is from May 5, 2020 taken in my yard. Where did it migrate from? Likely anywhere between south Florida to Columbia, South America.

Communication towers aren’t really something we can do much about as individuals, but there are actions we can take to assist migratory birds. Cornell Lab of Ornithology has a really nice website devoted to 7 ways you can help. These are 1) Reducing window strikes at your home; 2) Keeping cats indoors; 3) Reducing your lawn in favor of native plantings; 4) Avoiding pesticide use; 5) Purchasing shade-grown coffee; 6) Protecting the planet from plastics; and 7) Watch birds and share what you see.

This is a Northern Waterthrush who’s image I captured at Ashland Nature Center on May 1, 2020. It appears on this eBird checklist. Another migrant from the tropics, this bird made its way to Ashland from where it winters in Central America, the West Indies, or northern South America.

Let’s focus on #7. The more we know about bird distribution, timing of migration, and the increase or decrease in populations, the better we are prepared to protect them. I suggest that you watch birds and submit your sightings to ebird.org. The photographs in this post were all uploaded into eBird checklists I’ve submitted this spring. eBird is simple to use, there is a free app, and it is a lot of fun. Simply birding your yard for 15 minutes is enough to enter a checklist. You can even submit a sighting of a single bird you saw while doing something else other than birding. Don’t know birds very well? Use the Merlin bird identification app to help you. Watching birds is something you can do your whole life, anywhere on earth, and at any time. It is something to share with others, and introduce to children, friends and relatives. It is the perfect thing to do outdoors to better enjoy your “home ecosystem”, whether it is in the city, suburbs, or countryside. Give it a try, learn to identify some birds, use ebird and have Merlin help you identify what you see. In doing so, you will enrich your life, and will be doing something to help birds.

On the same day I found the Northern Waterthrush, above, I also was pleased to photograph this Gray Catbird posed nicely. Catbirds winter in the southern United States, but can be found as far south as Panama and throughout the West Indies in winter. They are one of the most common birds that breed around Delaware suburban yards.

Interested in learning more about ebird and a similar citizen science app called iNaturalist? Register for an on-line, two-part series I am teaching called “Become a Citizen Scientist“. I will be going over how to use both of these applications on the evenings of May 13 and 27. I am convinced you will learn a LOT more about nature and wildlife, enrich your own life, as well as contribute to the understanding of our natural world…one of the first steps in helping to conserve it.

3 thoughts on “Zugunruhe”

  1. Reminds me of an old Joni Mitchell song, the geese in chevron flight “they’ve got the urge for going and they’ve got the wings to go.” Perhaps a little melancholy, but urge for going sounds a little better to my ear than “zugunruhe.” ;•)

    I’ve been enjoying the blogs. Thank you.

  2. This bird is unique. I like its black eyes and gray feather. It’s sad to know that the number of them has been decreased, I think it is necessary to take measures to protect it right now

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