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Written By Pammi Price.

Posted on November 15th, 2021.

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In New York, migrating birds can be seen flying south in fall on their way to wintering grounds in the southern United States, Central and South America.  Birds migrate to fulfill two primary resource needs – food and nesting locations.  In fall, available insects and other food sources decrease, so some birds migrate to areas with higher amounts of food resources.

Forests and Bird Migration by Pammi Price, CCE Columbia & Greene

Certified Wildlife Biologist, CPESC-IT
M.Ed. Environmental Education 2021
Environment & Natural Resources Program Coordinator

Fall Bird Migration

In New York, migrating birds can be seen flying south in fall on their way to wintering grounds in the southern United States, Central and South America.  Birds migrate to fulfill two primary resource needs – food and nesting locations.  In fall, available insects and other food sources decrease, so some birds migrate to areas with higher amounts of food resources.


Red-breasted Nuthatch by Pammi Price

Approximately 70% of North American birds migrate and an estimated 80% of them migrate at night!  Birds migrate at night because the atmosphere is more stable, temperatures are cooler – helping birds avoid overheating.  The cover of darkness protects many birds from predators during their journey.  Many of our favorite songbirds migrate using the moon and stars for navigation, a good reason to reduce light pollution by turning off unnecessary lights at night during peak migration times. 

Birds follow certain cues to determine departure from their northern habitats such as light levels, sun angles, temperatures, precipitation and food availability.  Two other major fall migration factors are where the bird is starting its journey, and whether the juvenile birds are ready for the trip to their winter homes.  These two indicators mean birds nesting in the Arctic may move south in June or July while their friends breeding in New York State might not start their migration journey on the Atlantic Flyway until September or as late as December, even into early January!  Flyways are established routes migrating birds use regularly.  There are four flyways in North America – Atlantic, Mississippi, Central and Pacific.  The Atlantic Flyway stretches from the Arctic Tundra to the Caribbean and follows the east coast of the United States.  The Atlantic Flyway includes forests, wetlands, beaches, and other bird friendly habitats.

Birds Use Forests

Many migrating bird species use forests as stop over points.  This provides them with their basic needs including food, water, shelter, roosting and perching sites.  These same forests also provide important winter habitat for the bird species that do not migrate each winter. 

Winter Forest Birds


Black-capped Chickadee by Pammi Price

The bird species that remain in the northeastern forests take advantage of winter food sources like nuts, seed and berries.  They may stay to maintain their territory year-round, or to avoid the many hazards of migration, but winter birds have to endure the winter cold.  Birds who stay for the winter have several survival strategies to survive by working to minimize energy spent and maximize calories they take in.  They hang around in flocks to reduce predation, shiver, fluff their feathers, tuck in their feet and bills, and roost or cuddle together for warmth. Some smaller birds, like chickadees and doves, can even spend frigid winter days in torpor – a state of short-term hibernation to maintain body heat and conserve energy. 

Favorites You’ll Likely Find in Your Woods

Winter forest birds include the Black-capped Chickadee who prefers mixed woods containing both broadleaf and conifer species where they can find winter seeds and berries.  Many small songbirds seek and hang out with Black-capped Chickadee flocks when migrating through unfamiliar territory. 


Northern Cardinals by Pammi Price

The Northern Cardinal doesn’t migrate and keeps its beautifully colored plumage throughout the winter months.  Look for them in the brushy edges along woodlands foraging on or near the ground for seeds, fruits and the larvae of insects.  They look for high perches to sing.  Fun fact, during breeding season female Northern Cardinals sing too, as a clue for males to bring food to the nest!

Another winter resident is the Tufted Titmouse who prefers mature deciduous forests and the seeds and insects it finds there.  They hoard food in fall and winter, often storing seed from feeders for later.  In winter, male and female Tufted Titmouse divide up where they search for food with males feeding on small branches and weed stems, while larger branches and trunks are preferred by the females. The Tufted Titmouse is dependent on dead trees, using holes excavated by woodpeckers for nesting cavities.


Tufted Titmouse by Pammi Price

Woodpeckers love the bounty of the forest with plentiful insects beneath the tree bark.  Winter forest woodpeckers include the Downy Woodpecker who prefers patches of brush and midstory trees where they feed on insects, seeds and berries.


Downy Woodpecker by Pammi Price

The Pileated Woodpecker creates distinctive rectangular or oblong-shaped holes in trees where they find the ants they desire.  The forest echoes with the sound of Pileated Woodpeckers excavating holes in dead trees with the powerful chopping sound heard from far away.  Standing dead trees and downed wood are staples of their habitat, where they can be found foraging on fallen logs for their favorite insects.


Pileated Woodpecker holes by Pammi Price

Owls also call the forest home in winter, including the Barred Owl who lives in mixed species forests, hardwood swamps, and riparian woodlands where they hunt for small mammals and rodents.  Barred owls don’t migrate and don’t move around much – one study of 158 birds found when they did move, it was less than 6 miles from their original spot. 


Barred Owl by Pammi Price

Creating Healthy Habitat

To help forest birds, creating a healthy and diverse forested landscape is key.  With 63% of New York State being forest covered, the way forests are managed can impact bird populations considerably. Factors include providing multiple tree species, different age classes of trees and shrubs, canopy openings, multiple forests layers aka vertical structural diversity, and having differing forest stands on the landscape to provide diversity.  In fragmented landscapes where forested areas are small, maintaining existing forests is important.

Native species are most valuable to wildlife, supporting all parts of the native insect life-cycles, and providing more nutritious mast (fruit, nuts, and seeds) for forest birds.  Interfering vegetation, which can be native or non-native, can inhibit the growth of important native species, so these species should be controlled to allow the natives to thrive and regenerate year after year.  Other important habitat needs include providing standing dead trees or snags, downed woody material, leaf litter and duff for nesting, roosting and foraging habitat.

Once you decide on your forest management goals, connect with a professional forester to develop a forestry management plan for long-term health and resilience, then implement the recommendations when you are ready.  Remember to check on available incentive programs that may help defray costs.


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