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Autumn is not only a time of brilliant fall colors, but also a time to observe the annual bird migration that spans our continent.  Many of our feathered friends travel amazingly great distances to reach warmer climates with abundant food for winter.  This lengthy journey spans thousands of miles, requiring birds to expend a ton of energy in the effort.  As our avian counterparts make their annual retreat to warmer climates, it is critical that they build up fat stores prior to embarking on their trip and maintain this energy reserve by finding more food along the way.

“Migrating thousands of miles is very energetically costly and because of this cost, migrants need food they can convert into fat,” says Dr. Mike Ward, Assistant Professor in the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences at the University of Illinois and Scientist with the Illinois Natural History Survey.  Dr. Ward has a life-long interest in birds, spanning all the way back to childhood, and currently conducts a variety of research projects focused on bird migration in the Midwest.

“Bird migration this year is much later than usual,” says Ward.  He speculates that our cooler-than-normal spring may be a factor, but acknowledges that it difficult to determine the exact cause of why migration is a bit late this year.  Ward adds, “As of this week, there are still shorebirds, warblers and a few hummingbirds migrating through central Illinois.”

Dr. Ward was the keynote speaker at the State Master Naturalist Conference last week and he presented a variety of interesting research related to how our Midwestern birds migrate across, or sometimes around, the Gulf of Mexico.  His talk also highlighted some of things we can do to help migrating birds successfully reach it across the Gulf.

“Central Illinois is well placed to receive a great variety and a large number of migrants. People in central Illinois can both enjoy the passing of these colorful birds, as well as help them along the way, by planting native shrubs, having areas on their property that are just “messy” (an area with some annual weeds, pokeweed, and some fruiting plants), and by keeping cats indoors during migration,” said Ward.

Another interesting point that Dr. Ward mentioned is the fact that shrubland birds are not area-sensitive species, meaning they do not need large, extensive shrublands to make use of the resource. This is in contrast to both grassland and woodland birds which do need large swaths of contiguous habitat. 

As landowners in the migration route, every native shrub planting we can add has some benefit to these birds, whereas my small patch of native prairie plants in our backyard may not add much benefit to migrating grassland birds, although it does greatly benefit our native insect populations.

Spring bird migration is largely fueled by insect predation and our native shrubs support a healthy population of native insects.  Many of the non-native, ornamental shrubs that are common in our landscape do not sustain the diversity of native insects that our indigenous shrubs species support.  This is actually a major reason why the horticulture industry has selected these non-native species for use in the US.

Every plant has mechanisms for defense from predation. Since native insects are adapted to the defense mechanisms of our native plants they often are unable to use non-native plants.  Insects serve a vital role in food webs as they transfer energy from plants to animals.  Without this base of the food web (from plants and insects), many of the larger fauna we enjoy cannot subsist.  Therefore, adding native plants to our landscaping benefits the central Illinois “ecosystem” as a whole.

“Migratory birds face many obstacles during their journey and I am a big believer that every little effort to help these birds makes a difference,” said Ward. 

As the growing season comes to an end this year, consider “every little effort” you can make next year to support our native insects and birds.