Mar 18, 2016 | Featured in: Watching Backyard Birds, April 2015

Avian Migration: Wonder of the Natural World

A male scarlet tanager sings from a high branch in a wooded area.

Since the dawn of civilization, birds have fascinated humans with their incredible diversity, glorious colors, and awesome power of flight. Year after year, hundreds of species travel thousands of miles from their southern wintering grounds to their breeding territories in North America. Many visit our backyards to rest, refuel, or even raise their next brood. Some go unnoticed. Others are far more conspicuous. Each is an inspiring example of one of the greatest wonders of the natural world: the phenomenon of avian migration.

We've hand-picked a few neotropical migrants to illustrate the amazing capabilities of birds. Imagine that oriole at your feeder, or those swallows in your barn. Those tiny travelers may have been in Nicaragua only a few weeks ago. They'll spend an hour, a day, or several months in your backyard or neighborhood, and then continue on their age-old, cross-continental journey.

Scarlet Tanager

A stunning combination of black and crimson, the male scarlet tanager in breeding plumage ranks among the most impressively beautiful birds of North America. From northwestern South America, these tropical beauties move up into Central America, cross the Gulf of Mexico, and then continue to the northeastern states to spend the summer months.

The spring and summer plumage of the male scarlet tanager is stunning and unmistakable. In fall males lose all of their red color and turn a dull yellow-olive (though they retain the black wings and tails). Females are olive, yellow, and gray overall in all seasons.

Barn Swallow

One early naturalist estimated that a barn swallow that lived ten years would fly more than two million miles, enough to travel eighty-seven times around the globe. These familiar birds winter throughout South America and summer in open habitats, such as fields and pastures, across North America. The majority of barn swallows migrate by following the Central American isthmus, though some cross the Caribbean.

The graceful barn swallow is a common and familiar summer resident across North America. Its deeply forked swallowtail separates this species from other common swallows. Its rusty face and throat and orange belly make this our most colorful swallow.

Bullock's Oriole

Named for the English naturalist William Bullock, Bullock's orioles brighten up many western backyards with their flaming orange-and-black plumage and rich, whistling songs. These birds don't travel quite as far as some migrants, wintering in Mexico and northern Central America, and breeding throughout western North America.

The male Bullock's oriole is bright orange below with an orange face, black throat, and crown, and has a black eye line. During the summer months, look for it in areas with deciduous woods.


The migratory route of this small blackbird is truly impressive. Wintering in southern South America—Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, and Paraguay—bobolinks travel thousands of miles, crossing the Caribbean, to reach their North American breeding grounds. The long, bubbly songs of breeding males may be heard in grasslands across southern Canada and the northern United States in spring and early summer.

Bobolinks are often found in grassy meadows and hay fields in spring and summer. Males are easily found when they perform a song-flight over their territory. Females tend to hide in the tall grasses, so they are often harder to see.

Wood Thrush

Few things are more hauntingly beautiful than the evening song of the wood thrush. From Central America, these birds cross the Gulf of Mexico to the eastern United States, seeking patches of dense forest in which to nest. Backyards in wooded neighborhoods may host these master singers during the spring and summer months.

The wood thrush is the largest and most boldly marked of our brown woodland thrushes. The large spots on the white breast stand out even in deep woodlands. Look for it foraging on the ground, much like an American robin.

About Kyle Carlsen

Kyle is the assistant editor of Bird Watcher's Digest. When not writing about birds, he divides his time between backpacking, traveling, and composing piano music. He's also a self-described coffee addict.

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  • This is exactly my experience. The local feed store had some on sale so I thought I'd try some. Actually I was shocked at how it is avoided, and I've been feeding birds for more than 40 years. I suppose I've never had it out as the ONLY food source, but when I put it out along with the blackoil, peanuts, cracked corn and suet cakes, absolutely nothing would touch it. Even when I dumped some on the ground the rabbits wouldn't eat it, nor would the squirrels. Eventually some turkeys and deer ate some--when they could find nothing else underneath the other feeders. But even they left plenty on the ground which they NEVER do with cracked corn, sunflower, etc.Every person should try some if they're inclined and decide for themselves since every situation may be a bit different, but for me/my species, safflower is a big no.
    by Colin Croft, Sun, 03 Mar 2019
  • I have questions about the Zick Dough? It says not to use in cold weather. It is still in the 40s here. Too soon? How long should I expect a supply to last? And, use a tray feeder? Thanks.
    by martindf, Sun, 25 Nov 2018
  • Glad I found this. I'm a snowbird and was worried about all the birds that come to feed at my birdfeeder. I have Cardinals, sparrows, doves, Blue Jays, chickadees. I hope they'll find food elsewhere while I'm gone.
    by Donna, Sat, 03 Nov 2018
  • I had a pair nesting for the first time this year at our farmstead in South Dakota. Boxes put out for Bluebirds which didn't come, but these were a very pleasant consolation.
    by fluffypeanutcat, Tue, 25 Sep 2018
  • This is a good point. While cleaning mine, I kinda got the impression the cheep cheeps were waiting on me since they started chirping as soon as I brought it outside again. I swear they are so smart. Within five minutes of filling the feeder up, they are there to feast.cheers Cheep cheeps!
    by Kimber timbers, Fri, 20 Jul 2018