Signs of spring: the birds have returned


Cole Oleson

All of Amherst looks forward to return of the robin, our state bird.

Lia Peterson

     With the approaching spring thaw, birds from all around the country start to travel northward to Wisconsin. In the midst of spring, usually between March to June, nearly 300 species of birds migrate into Wisconsin. This annual recurrence brings new life to be observed by nature seekers and everyday individuals.

Short distance travelers like the robin, song sparrow, and killdeer are usually the first to appear in Wisconsin, coming early- to mid-March. Waterfowl species also arrive mid-March, although their arrival depends on how frozen Wisconsin’s bodies of water are. However, as soon as marshes and lakes start to thaw, you will also see flocks of ducks, geese, and swans visible in the landscape. Entering next are the long-distance travelers, some species traveling up to 600 miles! The scarlet tanager, indigo buntings, and ruby-throated hummingbirds migrate in late April to early May.

The timing of bird migration doesn’t depend only on the type of bird. Bob Welch, a master federal bird bander and salvager for 49 years, notes the “timing of migration varies by gender and age of individuals.” Usually, the earliest arrivals in WIsconsin are the more experienced adult male birds so they can claim territory; followed soon after by female birds. Young, immature birds tend to migrate later in the season because they need more time to build flight muscle and store additional body fat for their travels.

Migration is a difficult and relentless task that countless bird species complete many times a year. Some may wonder how long this annual recurrence has taken place. According to Bob Welch, “Birds started migrating tens of thousands of years ago” and they migrate in response to extreme temperature changes, frozen water sources, scarce or unavailable insect and food sources, as well as vegetation changes, such as, plants, sap, and nectar. The wide range of vegetation and water resources that many birds seek for breeding are essential aspects of Wisconsin’s spring landscape, making it the ideal place for many bird species to raise their young.

Not only do migratory birds thrive once they settle, but they also help Wisconsin’s ecosystems and habitats flourish. For example, many birds eat plants and insects, helping create a balanced ecosystem, preventing an overabundance; other species, including hummingbirds, help with the pollination of plants; and many smaller birds act as a food source for native predators.

Many unique species migrate in the spring, specifically the following: sapsuckers that peck holes into trees to collect nutritious sap; nightjars and swifts that catch flying insects at dusk and dark; shrikes that specialize in killing prey like snakes, amphibians, and other birds; and hummingbirds, the only bird that can truly fly backwards.

Welch, who has been working and learning about birds for 65 years, never tires of learning and observing birds. “Like any observant curious kid I started uncovering the mystery of birds by locating their nests and watching their feeding habits and behaviors as early as age 3-4 years.I was often punished with losing dinner and with 10 strikes of a heavy rod for developing a habit of not returning home until after dinner and well after dark.

“By High School I became a formally trained wildlife rehabber and housed and cared for injured animals, mostly raptors, swans, ducks, and a few other groups when the warden brought in birds from concerned public, by college I was a trained master falconer and became a master bird bander my sophomore year at age 20… I was employed full time as a museum taxidermist and research assistant working on the major prairie chicken project for 7 years in undergrad and graduate school.” Today, Welch continues to educate and inspire people to learn about birds and their wonders.

As the many bird species migrate and settle in our home state of Wisconsin this spring, go outside, look up, and observe the beauties of nature flying overhead.