Guest post by Kate Davies, a recent MEnvSc Graduate from the University of Toronto-Scarborough
She could feel the pull in her body. It was time.
She had done this journey before, but even the first time it felt familiar. Like a memory that she was born with.
She was called Bright because she was known by the others for her deeply golden tail feathers and her clear eyes. Bright was late leaving her winter home this year, and many of the others had left already, departing at the first signs of change. The air had started to feel heavy signaling that the rains would come soon. She had to start north before daybreak. Bright hopped around the tree canopy from branch to branch. She dropped her wings by her sides and fanned her tail to spook the insects and quickly grab them in her beak. She had spent her winter in brushy scrubland that was not the best feeding grounds, but she was older now and had less energy to defend her place in the boggy wetlands filled with ripe insects. She ate her fill before she spread her wings and started to carry her small light body out over the immense open waters. Crossing the gulf was frightening the first time, but she knew even on her first trip that the sky would end, and she would see green again. She traveled in a loose flock with some other Redstart females, some yearlings and others Bright knew from previous flights. She hoped some of her daughters were here, now grown she would not have known their calls. The males always left first; they would meet them in the northern home.
|Illustration by Kate Davies|
The journey across the gulf lasted into the night, the winds were not favourable this year. Bright and the others she travelled with were weak and needed to eat. There was a wetland they had visited as a stop every year, but Bright was worried they had taken a wrong turn. This was the right place but there was not water, few plants, and it had been filled with stone, humans and a glowing hum. It seemed as she flew north every year there were more angular stone forests filled with humans. Some could tolerate these stone forests but Bright and her companions preferred trees and grass. The birds who lived there like pigeons and house sparrows spoke a different language than the other birds she knew, and some said they came across the water bigger than the gulf. So, despite their exhaustion the females kept flying until they could find somewhere to eat and sleep. They had to settle for an area where the plants all grew in rows, a farm, but there was a river and some insects so it would do for today. These human places had different dangers and predators than in the forests and fields. Bright knew to be cautious of owls, hawks and snakes but where there were humans, other dangers were lurking. They were too tired to find anywhere else to sleep. Bright noticed that her party had shrunk by a few - some were so tired they may have rested in the stone forest. Bright hoped the others would be alright and would catch up to the group.
They travelled for a few more days, finding quiet places to rest. They avoided the stone forests as much as they could with their bright lights, constant noises and hums. They rested at another farm on the fifth night. Bright and her companions were huddled in a dense thicket of bushes near a field and river. They had fallen sound asleep for the night. In the nearby tall grasses, a pair of green eyes shone in the moonlight. A barn cat had been stalking the birds, she moved quietly, softer than the wind. The cat slinked under the low branches of the bush without a sound and spotted a bird on a low branch she could easily reach. Bright opened her eyes to see one of the yearlings was in the cat’s fangs - she was lost. Bright and her companions moved to another row of bushes closer to the stream, they were all shaken and tired. Fear and anxiety overtook the small flock, they didn’t sleep anymore that night. Bright was relieved when the sun crept over the horizon and they could continue northward.
|Illustration by Kate Davies|
The air was warm, and they had been lucky that there were no storms along the way. They started to see some males that day, and a few of her companions ended their journey to find a mate. Bright continued her northward flight as did most of the females until they made it over the big lake. It was not as big as the gulf, but it could be dangerous, as there were many humans and stone forests around the water. There were predators near every shore, some had been here all winter and were eager for the small songbirds to return so they could fill their bellies.
Since Bright had left late this year, she was eager to build a nest and find a mate. She decided to end her journey on an island at the north shore of one of the long lakes. Most of the others continued north. She was near a stone forest but on an island that was far enough away that the sound of the waves drowned out the hum and noise. It was the time of year where the air was filled with song from many different birds. She fluttered around the island listening for males of her kind, trying to find one who sang strong and clear. She followed a song to a male high up in a red maple tree. In her mind she identified him as Flicker - he was very expressive in the way he flicked his tail. He took her to the sites he had scouted for nesting to see if she approved of any. She was happy that she would be his first and maybe only mate, which would afford her more protection. She picked the third site he showed her. It was a dense area of red dogwood that was covered in fresh young leaves. They were close to a pond in an area rich with insects. She started to gather twigs and build her nest there while Flicker stayed close singing to warn others away from his mate and territory. Together they had four eggs and Bright was happy with her clutch size; it was more than last spring. She left the nest to find some food in early morning and Flicker guarded the eggs. She was chasing a particularly acrobatic fly though the bushes when suddenly a great force stopped her flight and she fell to the ground. She could feel and taste the warmth of blood in her mouth, her beak was fractured, her head pounded, and she could not catch her breath. She had only seen branches before her, it was like a reflective pond in the air made of stone. Bright wanted to live, she wanted to get up go back to Flicker and the young. She could not move; she let out her last breath and died.
The new gardener came around back of the building to trim the forsythia that was long overgrown. At the base of the bush under the window lay a female American Restart, she was dead. The garden gasped and cried out ‘Oh no!’ Another window strike, this was the sixth one this month and perhaps it would encourage management to finally birdproof the windows, thought the gardener. She buried the bird in the garden with a tear for its loss of life and trimmed the forsythia. On her break she reported the window strike on the Fatal Light Awareness Project (Flap) website and continued her duties.
Flicker realized that Bright would not return - what had become of her? He could not care for the babies alone. He would have to leave them. He sung a mournful song for Bright and flew off in search of a new mate hoping that it wasn’t too late.
Further Reading and References
Further reading: Online resources
The Cornell Lab - All about birds – American Redstart
Species account: https://birdsna.org/Species-Account/bna/species/amered/introduction
Toronto and Region Conservation Authority. The American Redstart: A Bird On the Rise In the GTA https://trca.ca/news/the-american-redstart-a-bird-on-the-rise-in-the-gta/
Boreal Songbird initiative. A guide to boreal birds https://www.borealbirds.org/bird/american-redstart
Ontario Nature. Migratory Birds https://ontarionature.org/campaigns/migratory-birds/
North American Birds Declining as Threats Mount By Mel White for National Geographic https://www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/6/130621-threats-against-birds-cats-wind-turbines-climate-change-habitat-loss-science-united-states/
Birdwatchers Digest. Your Bird Questions Answered: Flight and Migration https://www.birdwatchersdigest.com/bwdsite/connect/youngbirders/your-bird-questions-answered-flight-migration.php
Further reading: peer reviewed literature
Cohen, E. B., Rushing, C. R., Moore, F. R., & Hallworth, M. T. (2019). The strength of migratory connectivity for birds en route to breeding through the Gulf of Mexico. Ecography, 42(4), 658–669. https://doi.org/10.1111/ecog.03974
Cooper, N. W., Sherry, T. W., & Marra, P. P. (2015). Experimental reduction of winter food decreases body condition and delays migration in a long-distance migratory bird. Ecology, 96(7), 1933.
Hill, G. E. (2004). A Head Start for Some Redstarts. Science, 306(5705), 2201–2202.
Germain, R. R., Marra, P. P., Kyser, T. K., & Ratcliffe, L. M. (2010). Adult-Like Plumage Coloration Predicts Winter Territory Quality and Timing of Arrival on the Breeding Grounds of Yearling Male American Redstarts. The Condor, 112(4), 676–682. https://doi.org/10.1525/cond.2010.090193
Norris, D. R., Marra, P. P., Bowen, G. J., & Ratcliffe, L. M. (2006). Migratory connectivity of a widely distributed songbird, the American Redstart (Setophaga ruticilla). The Auk, 123(4), 14.
Norris, D. R., & Marra, P. P. (2007). Seasonal Interactions, Habitat Quality, and Population Dynamics in Migratory Birds. The Condor, 109(3), 535–547.
Marra, P. P., & Holmes, R. T. (2001). Consequences of Dominance-Mediated habitat segregation in American Redstarts during the nonbreeding season. The Auk, 118(1), 92–104.
McKinnon, E. A., Stanley, C. Q., & Stutchbury, B. J. M. (2015). Carry-Over Effects of Nonbreeding Habitat on Start-to-Finish Spring Migration Performance of a Songbird. PloS One, 10(11), e0141580.
Morris, S. R., & Glasgow, J. L. (2001). Comparison of spring and fall migration of American Redstarts on Appledore Island, Maine. The Wilson Bulletin, 113(2), 202.
Smith, R. J., Mabey, S. E., & Moore, F. R. (2009). Spring Passage and Arrival Patterns of American Redstarts in Michigan’s Eastern Upper Peninsula. The Wilson Journal of Ornithology, 121(2), 290–297. https://doi.org/10.1676/08-051.1
Wuethrich, B. (1998). Songbirds Stressed in Winter Grounds. Science, 282(5395), 1791–1794.