As kids are heading indoors and settling in for the cold weather, many young birds are preparing for the journey of a lifetime.
Hatched in the spring, these fliers—and their parents—are getting ready to soar to warmer climes as far as thousands of miles away in search of food and favorable habitat. It's a chance for children to observe behavior that's different from spring migration. Plus, better weather tends to make better bird-watching—no February blizzards or crazy March thunderstorms!
"Fall migration can be even more exciting to observe than spring because the sheer numbers of birds are so great," says Andrew Farnsworth, a senior research associate at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. "It's an incredible opportunity to experience the way natural populations grow."
Fall migration offers incredible opportunities for beginner and seasoned birders alike. (This article provides tips on getting your child started as a birder.) Here’s how to plan some kid-friendly activities around the fliers’ journey—and maybe get your kids to learn something, too.
Impress your kids: Be a fall bird expert!
A common question that kids often ask is How do the birds know when to leave? It's complicated, but Farnsworth explains that migration behavior usually falls into two basic groups.
Calendar migrants start their travels when they sense a change in daylight, which signals that food will be scarce in another month. Think of these birds—like songbirds such as blackpoll warblers and gray-cheeked thrushes in northern forests—as long-range planners that will migrate with plenty of fruits and insects still available.
Facultative migrants stick around until plants and insects begin to disappear. Even as temperatures get lower and snow falls, birds like the red-necked grebe won't start their migration if they can still access food and open water.
Kids might also ask, How do they know where to go? Farnsworth says that birds can travel up to 7,000 miles and often return to the same winter feeding grounds in Central and South America. According to Farnsworth, birds navigate using the magnetic field of the Earth as well as the orientation of stars. They also have an excellent memory for places and patterns.
They use all this to identify and remember locations where they previously bred or stopped to refuel,” he says.
So what's so special about fall migration?
J. Drew Lanham, alumni distinguished professor of wildlife ecology at Clemson University, admits that the fall migration season can be easy to overlook. Birds are less noticeable as they return south—the goal is food, not mates, so the fliers aren't sporting bright colors or chirping out mating calls.
"Spring is an Easter egg hunt, where we look and listen for those brightly colored, vocal birds," he says. "Fall is more of a scavenger hunt, where we look for the unexpected. A lot of what we see depends on our sharp eyes and seeing movement where native birds often gather."
The migrators might be less noticeable, but kids will have many more birds to spot—Farnsworth says that the spring mating season means about one to two billion birds will be migrating across the United States in the fall, many more than in warmer weather.
Another reason the birds might be less noticeable? Fall migration often happens at night, when young birds aren't in as much danger from predators like hawks and falcons. That's why many fliers have special vocalizations they use to communicate after the sun sets.
"In the fall, the calling often happens when young birds are trying to communicate," Farnsworth says. "When birds are disoriented, the calling goes up tremendously." (If your family lives in a city, you might even hear more birds at night as they try to find their way through light pollution.)
How to get kids started with fall bird-watching
Lanham and Farnsworth offer up these cool ideas that your budding birder can look for this season.
Watch some babies. Hatchlings from the spring immediately begin to prepare to leave their home. During late summer and early fall, children might be able to observe the babies follow adult birds as they forage for food.
Kids can also be on the lookout for young birds starting to take exploratory flights at night, learning about the world around them and how to survive. That also helps them transition from daytime activity to nighttime travel, when young birds can better avoid predators.
Have kids take note of these new birds in your yard or neighborhood—there's a good chance they'll see them again in the spring. Even young and inexperienced birds have an excellent memory for places.
Listen at night. Kids might enjoy listening to birds during the day, but an even better concert happens if they stay up late. Try to find the quietest and highest place possible to catch the clearest sounds. It's best to listen late at night and into the early morning, when it's the most quiet.
“Be up in the witching and warbling hours at 2 or 3 a.m. and just listen." Lanham says. "You can hear the calls of these birds—white-throated sparrows, rose-breasted grosbeaks, and great blue herons. It's amazing what's passing overhead as we sleep. It's a wondrous invisible world—just listen.”
Plan some travel. Help kids figure out what kind of migratory birds—calendar or facultative—live in your area, then challenge them to predict when those fliers will take off for the winter based on the shortening days or availability of food. Calendar migrants like yellow warblers and western tanagers could be flying overhead; facultative migrants might include American robins and yellow-rumped warblers.
Observe a food fight. Before flying south, birds eat much more food to put on weight quickly. “Birds may double or triple their body mass in a few short days to prepare for long migratory flights,” Farnsworth says. Encourage kids to watch how birds begin to congregate in trees and feed together in open fields and bodies of water as they "eat like a bird" to bulk up.
Try moon watching. On a clear night with a full moon, grab a pair of binoculars or a telescope and focus on the moon. Be patient and try to catch glimpses of different birds’ silhouettes as they cross the moon's face. Count how many birds pass by, and try to identify the different types of birds you see and hear using an app like the Cornell Lab's Merlin Bird ID.
Start a bird hotel. Kids can attract migrating birds like worm-eating warblers or summer tanagers throughout the fall by adding a water feature in your yard for thirsty fliers. (Here’s a kid-friendly DIY for making a birdbath.) Planting native vegetation and maintaining green space helps feed birds passing by as well. (Here are some ideas on making your backyard wildlife friendly.)