Today is Migratory Bird Day, and anyone who lives along the Mississippi River and its tributaries has reason to celebrate. The Great River is a great route for the birds migrating on the Mississippi Flyway, the largest of four flyways in North America.

“It is by far the most popular and heavily-utilized flyway for birds with about 50% of North America’s migratory birds and 40% of North America’s waterfowl and shorebirds using that pathway,” said Katie Burns with the Outreach and Education program of Audubon Minnesota. “The Mississippi River is essentially the backbone of this flyway.”

However, the Mississippi River is not necessarily treated as a superhighway by the migratory birds. Many do not cruise straight through but take advantage of stopovers along the way.

“This is where they are able to eat, drink, bathe, and avoid predators, depending on when they are migrating,” Burns said. “Migration is a wonderful opportunity to get out there and see the diversity of these bird species that are coming through, both using the water, but also the habitat adjacent to the water in the floodplain forest.”

Migrating birds face a number of challenges along the way. In fact, Burns said that “migration is one of the most vulnerable times in a bird’s life,” because there are storms and predators such as other birds, animals, and even domestic cats. There are also manmade problems like glass buildings and wind turbines.

Scientists at Audubon monitor many sets of data about birds including bird counts and surveys, to help them understand what is happening with bird populations. One recent trend they are seeing is a northerly shift in range for several bird species as a result of climate change.

“There are some concerns about what that means for the future of many of our favorite birds,” Burns said. “For instance, if a bird like the bobolink that is a grassland species is forced to shift northward, it might find itself in the boreal forests. That is a very different type of habitat from what that bird has evolved to rely on.”

Burns said the climate science team from Audubon has looked at many scenarios about how life could change for bird species if temperatures and other factors continue to change at the rate they have been. Results of those studies and many other reports are available on the Audubon website at www.audubon.org/. The website also has information about how to start birdwatching, how to identify birds, and how to grow plants that support area birds.

One of the most important things people can do is protect water resources, according to Burns. People who live near the Mississippi River are in a watershed, and the water that runs off the land ends up flowing into the river.

“Look at all the hard surfaces around where we live,” she said. “They are designed to carry rain or melting snow to a storm drain that ultimately empties into a body of water. By keeping those surfaces clear of debris, even things like grass clippings, leaves, and trash, we are having an impact on surface water quality.”

Chimney swifts circle St. John’s Lutheran Church in Red Wing before beginning their migration to South America. Steve Gardiner / RiverTown Multimedia
Chimney swifts circle St. John’s Lutheran Church in Red Wing before beginning their migration to South America. Steve Gardiner / RiverTown Multimedia

All of these concerns work together to form parts of the Mississippi Flyway, a route used by more than 325 bird species every year, according to the National Audubon Society. The distances they cover can be a few hundred miles to more than a thousand miles as they move from breeding grounds in the northern U.S. and Canada to wintering grounds in the Gulf of Mexico, Central America, and South America, and back again.

“At Audubon, we think of migratory birds as the professional athletes of the avian world,” Burns said. “ Many of them take these incredible journeys.”