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Bird Interlude

Oct 20, 2010

American robin feeding in snowAt this time of the year, I hear from a number of Missourians who want to know what has happened to the birds that seem to have disappeared from their yards or feeding stations. There is always the chance that something may have happened in their local area that caused the birds to move, but in general it’s something we expect as we transition from summer to winter.

Some of our migratory birds start leaving to head south in late summer. They may take their cues from the shortening day lengths or from the cooling temperatures. Birds that spend the winter in Missouri may change their habitat preferences for the fall and winter. American robins,  common birds of lawns during spring and summer, begin forming flocks and moving to forested areas where they can hunt for invertebrates in leaf litter. Some will move south for the winter, while others remain here but aren’t commonly seen in suburban lawns. They will communally roost in thickets of cedars or other evergreen trees during cold winter nights. Similar shifts take place in other species. The cardinals that visit your feeders during the winter are often not the same individuals that you saw earlier in the year when they were nesting nearby.

Birds that move into Missouri to spend the winter may not arrive until some strong cold fronts drive them down from their more northern summer ranges. Even though today is the average day of first frost in mid-Missouri, low temperatures can fluctuate considerably in the fall. I’ve seen a couple of frosts here more than a week ago, and there is a bit of frost on a few rooftops this morning. This current lull in bird activity can persist for a while or end abruptly, depending on the weather.

Don’t worry about the current lack of birds. It's not likely to portend some approaching disaster. Save your birdseed! In a few more weeks we’ll have low temperatures near freezing, and I’m sure there will be hungry birds at your feeders.


yes, I have noticed that our "winter birds" are slowing up later this season also. Looks like colder weather is coming in this weekend! Looking forward to watching the bird feeders -- and maybe some white stuff on the ground soon!

Do you think that the lateness of the birds year after year could be anything to do with a change in the seasons. They seem to be changing there patterns and coming at later stages in the year now.

Dr. Smith: I'm not enough of an ornithologist to know. I didn't know that more northern birds are arriving later every year, but I expect that their movements are strongly correlated with strong cold fronts. It those fronts are coming later, then it makes sense to me that the birds would also arrive later.

I have a question. I live in Illinois but my homestate is Missouri. Since I have been here for 60 years, I have never heard a Whip-o-Will call. Do they not live this far north? I really miss hearing them at night. I enjoy reading you on facebook. It reminds me of home.

Ms. Carroll: Whip-poor-wills are found in Illinois. Here's a link to information on the species that includes a range map: At that weblink, you can click on one of the tabs to hear the recorded call of the bird. The species has become less common rangewide for a number of reasons, including loss of appropriate forest habitat. As with many ground-nesting birds, predation by free-ranging housecats is another possible reason for decline.

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