Spring snowstorms bring death to migrating birds

Spring snowstorms bring death to migrating birds

[Cross-posted at my other blog, Gathering Runes.]

While big April snowstorms are not common in Wisconsin, they do happen now and then. But the two feet dumped on Green Bay this past weekend not only set a state record for April, it also ranks second on the list of all-time recorded snowfalls, second only to a 29-inch snowfall in March 1888.

And the birds migrating north flew right into it.

Here in southeastern Wisconsin, we got around four inches, plus another two or three yesterday. That’s a lot less than up north, but still enough to make it impossible for migrating birds to find food. Robins, for example, can’t find worms through the snow. I saw some hopping up and down my street, staring at snowbanks. And that puts them at risk of being hit by cars, along with other migrating birds taking to the streets to stay dry.

Early-arriving species of warblers, hermit thrushes, bluebirds, kinglets, wrens, brown creepers and bluebirds are among the species already in the state when the storm hit. No doubt many died.

A similar storm hit northern Minnesota in early May more than sixty years ago. The beloved author and wilderness preservation icon Sigurd Olson wrote about it in his best-selling first book, The Singing Wilderness. As his biographer, I recalled the essay and looked it up again. Here’s an excerpt:

Then one day in early May the sky darkened and, instead of rain, snow began to fall, lightly at first and then in huge flakes, until the brown earth was turned to white. The birds stayed on and other flocks came in, swelling their numbers, as they met the storm raging over the border country. The first day the snow covered all the food in the countryside. And still the flocks came in from the warm and rainy south just a short flight below. When the birds ran into the storm front, they stopped and joined those who had waited.

I shall never forget the morning of the second day with the snow still coming down: the sound of the singing at daybreak, the warbling of the purple finches, the mating-calls of the chickadees, the song sparrows, the robins, and the clear flute-like calls of the whitethroats all blended into one great symphony of thrilling sound while all the time the snow grew deeper and deeper.

Surely, I thought, the storm would not last. The sun would come out and it would disappear swiftly, but instead the cold grew more intense, a wind came up, and the snow came down as heavily as before. By the end of the week there was a foot of it, and the singing grew less and less noticeable. The birds sat dejectedly wherever there was shelter, and I picked up many that had died. Their feathers were sodden with the wet, and though I had placed out all the food I could find–suet for the chickadees, bread crumbs, chick feed, sunflower seeds–the birds were thin and emaciated. Now without fear, they gathered in droves around the feeding-stations, but they grew weaker and weaker, and more and more of them died as the storm continued.

Then came the grackles with their opaque eyes and long, sharp bills. I did not actually see them kill any of the smaller birds, but they did feed on those which had died and frightened those still alive. At the first flash of black wings all birds on the hilltop froze. There was no move to escape, just complete immobility as they waited for death to strike. The grackles would stay for a while, then leave as quickly as they had come. As soon as they were gone, the singing would begin once more in spite of the terror the birds had known.

The snow covered the north country with from twelve to sixteen inches of snow; millions of birds were stopped in their migration, and uncounted thousands must have died. Then the skies cleared, the sun came out, and in a week the ground was almost clear….I remember getting up at dawn one morning after the storm was over. There again was the music, swelled by new species that had just come in. The purple finches, the grosbeaks, the whitethroats stayed longer than the rest, and their singing never ceased. The blizzard of May and all that it had brought were forgotten. Then came a day of warm rain and all the snows were washed away.

Spring snowstorms bring death to migrating birds

As our climate changes, we can expect more fateful encounters between migrating birds and weather that is less predictable and more extreme. In addition, the places they have adapted to are changing, forcing them to search elsewhere for their food, water and nesting needs. The habitat for many bird species is shifting north. A new study in the peer-reviewed journal PLOS ONE shows that up in Sigurd Olson’s neck of the woods Voyageurs National Park may lose 37 nesting species between the years 2040 and 2070 and provide wintering grounds for 26 species that currently stay further south. Isle Royale National Park in Lake Superior may lose 25 nesting species, and gain 32 new winter resident species.

Unfortunately, among the nesting species that will gradually shift north out of Minnesota (and my Wisconsin) is the loon, Minnesota’s state bird, whose haunting call Sigurd described as “the symbol of the lake country, the sound that more than any other typifies the rocks and waters and forests of the wilderness.” The Quetico-Superior Foundation shows the changing loon range through 2050 in the map below, adapted from an Audubon Society map (which covers the continent and extends the time frame to 2080):

Spring snowstorms bring death to migrating birds

The yellow area shows loon breeding habitat between now and 2050. Blue shows its winter habitat during that time frame.

The birds we hear and see will change, which means our sense of place will be disrupted and will also have to change. But that will not be the only change to the places we love. The trees, too, are on the move, sometimes climbing higher in altitude, sometimes shifting north, and sometimes spreading in directions that surprise us until we remember that they do not live by temperature alone. Flowers, grasses, and lots of other vegetation are going through similar transitions as plant hardiness zones are changing. Butterflies, moths, dragonflies–our ecosystems are in the early stages of massive changes, and the toddlers of today will be witnesses. They will see their home places transformed, and they will experience the growing number of killer heat waves and record floods and the devastating droughts of the Southwest and the growing losses of life and property from wildfires and hurricanes.

And they will learn that we–in this time–had a chance to greatly lessen what they face. And they will ask–no, demand–that we answer their question: “What did you do? What did you do, once you knew?” If you hope to have a good answer, you’d better start paying attention to the scientists and stop denying the reality and urgency of the growing storm of destruction. For as awful as it is to witness the dying birds of a record-breaking spring snow, that does not even begin to touch the devastation that is coming unless we as a society grow up and phase out fossil fuels far faster than you likely think is necessary. The science doesn’t lie. Politicians do.

Photo: Sigurd Olson, ca 1980, and snow-covered driftwood; David Backes.

About the author

David Backes

I have always been drawn to where the wild things are: the natural world around me, and the wilderness within. As a writer, speaker, and university professor, I have for decades focused on this combination of nature and the human spirit. In recent years, my spiritual journey has added another lens: social, environmental and intergenerational justice. Put it all together and you’ve got The Earth Keeper, a blog of integral ecology and the prophetic imagination. The Earth Keeper may at times make you feel hopeful or inspired; it may make you feel uncomfortable or defensive or even angry. I hope it often will be challenging, and always interesting.

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