What Kind of Bird is That? Wisconsin Spring Migrations

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Local Communities, Milwaukee Living

If you have been out on the hiking trails or walking paths through some of our Milwaukee parks, you may have noticed folks walking around staring at the treetops with binoculars. That’s right, with the return of the warmer spring air comes the return of our migratory friends and everyone who enjoys participating in the flight – even though it may be vicarious. This spring up to 300 different species of birds will stopover either  on the way north or the annual return to last year’s nest sites within the state. Some of these feathered fliers will have traveled over 800 miles in one direction just to return to their breeding ranges to start a new family. The spring migration can begin in late January with the peak hitting in mid-May and will vary depending on the type of bird and flight path.  Wisconsin is almost smack dab in the middle of the Mississippi Flyway. Though any bird migrating along this path will encounter many hazards along the way, the journey is worth the effort and risk; food becomes more available as the daylight hours lengthen, early arrivals claim the best breeding grounds, and males are able to set themselves up as the first to impress prospective mates. Some of the easily recognized birds you may see this year include:

Red-winged Blackbird

The red-winged blackbird is the noisy harbinger of the season. Mixed flights of red-winged blackbirds, starlings, grackles, and cowbirds gather in flocks numbering in the thousands as they dance in a northbound living cloud. This arial ballet is called a murmuration, which is understandable if you are fortunate to be close enough to hear the sound thousands of pairs of wings make while in flight. The red-winged black bird receives notoriety for its aggressive behavior during nesting as it attacks all perceived threats to its territory. As its name implies, this shiny blackbird has a bright red patch accentuated with a yellow chevron on its wings. The crimson blaze is most noticeable when defending its home or attracting the attention of a female. Numbers of red-wing blackbirds can be found along the shores of Whitnall Park Pond and Scout Lake.

Sandhill Cranes

Normally you will hear the sandhill cranes long before you see them. While you walk along your favorite trail you may start to hear a rattling, bugling call that seems to come from everywhere and nowhere at the same time.  Look up and you may see a flight of a dozen of these large cranes in flight. Sometimes you can hear them without ever laying eyes on their loosely knit wedge. These tall gray birds have and incredible wingspan of 6 to 7 feet. Often confused for grey herons, while in flight the sandhill crane has its neck and legs stretched out while the heron tucks its head back. Since they are primarily transitory during migration, you will most likely only see great numbers of them flying to their breeding grounds in the Horicon Marsh area. There are often pairs raising their chicks locally and are seen mostly in the early morning or at dusk in the open fields off the county’s back roads.



Perhaps the most easily recognized early bird of spring is none other than our state bird, the American robin. Robins are one of the most widespread native birds in North America with nesting sites in all 49 continental states of the USA, all Provinces and Territories of Canada, and all states of Mexico. Not all robins head south for the winter, or so it would seem. Robins seem to be present year-round in southern Wisconsin. These hardy individuals hale from colder climes during the summer months. So, Wisconsin becomes their winter destination while our local birds head for warmer regions. Most of our local birds return to our area in early March. Sometimes I wonder if the robins I see viciously fighting in the spring over territory, food, and mates are the same birds (or their offspring) I saw last year.


In the 1970’s and early 1980’s it was speculated the eastern bluebird would soon become a footnote in our state’s avian history books. Bluebird populations plummeted and sightings were rare. In response, the Wisconsin DNR and volunteer groups throughout the state worked together to restore and monitor populations of eastern bluebirds. Through their combined efforts, bluebirds have become much more abundant in the last 20 years.  These programs owe their to success to several different factors; discontinuation of DDT and other harmful pesticides which, while controlling crop and lawn pests, decimated the birds which preyed upon those insects, and a youth-driven effort to make and place wooden bluebird nesting boxes as an alternative to the tree cavities preferred as wild nesting sites. Related to robins, though smaller and more colorful, some hardy individuals stay year-round in our area, most head south for the winter. These bright blue bits of fluff are suburban favorites because they thrive in the neighborhood and help keep lawns free of unwanted pests.

American White Pelican

Another avian comeback success story in the past twenty years is our American white pelican. This bird is one of the largest in North America and can be found wherever there are large bodies of water throughout the state. These once rarely seen birds can now be counted in the hundreds during their spring migration. The best bird watching sites for these pouched flying acrobats is along the Lake Michigan shore as they return from wintering over in Mexico and other points south.

The Season of Spring Migration Flights

The local birding season hits its peak in mid-May when the last of the colorful migrants return in full force. A bounty of bright colors and the sounds of bird song resounding through the local parks invite all to participate in witnessing the spectacular migration journey to our neighborhoods and backyards. So, what are you waiting for? Grab a field guide, put on a warm jacket, get out your binoculars and enjoy the best of our Milwaukee spring bird migration!

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