"Clever man is a chicken; it can fly, but a little. Genius, on the other hand, is a migratory bird; it can fly at high altitudes until He disappears on the horizon!" — Mehmet Murat ildan
Lights Out, Texas is a statewide campaign of education, awareness, and action to address the problem of bird fatalities caused by the abundance of artificial lights..
Peak Migration in Texas is from Sept. 6 to Oct. 29.
Each year during fall and spring migrations, nearly two billion birds travel through Texas navigating by the night sky in one of the planet’s great wildlife spectacles.
However, as they pass over big cities on their way, they can become disoriented by bright artificial lights often causing them to collide with buildings or windows, or simply becoming exhausted from the confusion.
Visit Birdcast to see how many birds are flying over Comal County right now and see a map of the entire U.S. Fall migration.
BE PART OF THE SOLUTION
“We Have Been Visited, Twice!”
April 3, 2022
Our decision to pursue the “third trimester” of our lives settling into the surrounds of an oak motte on a small slice of a legacy family ranch in the Gruene/New Braunfels area has proven to be a journey of surprises and adventures. Many unanticipated opportunities and challenges have come our way as we settled into our “contemporary” barn of modest, serviceable size for this chapter. The avian gifts keep on giving! We had lived in major flyways primarily along the mighty Mississippi and its tributaries to see, hear, and enjoy the seasonal migrations that were quite regular. There were other surprises from time to time like arctic owls one year.
In our sixteen-plus years perched among wildlife and pasture life, a surprise for me has been the rich and amazing variety of avian dwellers and sojourners. Some 332 species have been observed in Comal County! Oh, what a delight it has been to note the varieties of song, call, plumage, and behaviors. Even the roadrunner has seemed to want to play hide and seek along an occasional walk. The equally interesting, but less welcome, extended presence of a rogue tom turkey contributed in his visit many photos and stories. By far the most impressive visits have been two occasions when our yard and pasture beyond were filled with robins. They seemed hungry, did a great job of aerating the soil as they found satisfying morsels. Their desire for water, particularly in an extended stay following our deep freeze in 2021, led to our placing buckets and a few other receptacles for extra water. Their continuous visits for dips and sips were part of an impressive social organization as they lined up awaiting a turn.
At night the grand limbs in the trees surrounding us were convenient perches, or, a new replacement group came in for a next round. Interesting, too, was how resident and other visiting birds went about their own
pursuits with no signs of belligerency. In this historic time of human cruelty and land cruelty and land snatching, perhaps our avian friends could offer some lessons! This year, the robins returned to their more regular flyways, or, so it seems with no sightings. Both visits were memorable!
Another impressive moment was an otherwise calm and serene night when there was a steady chorus of chatter by hundreds if not thousands of birds that settled into the trees and cover across the ranch and neighboring properties. An experienced ornithologist explained that if high elevation currents along a flyway interfere, the migrating birds may settle in for rest and protection until favorable navigating currents are restored. How amazing and memorable the entire experience! Others in the area exclaimed, “oh, we heard and had them, too!” Wonders of healthy nature!
If you have not experienced the varieties of avian dwellers and the rich variety of migratory groups that come our way, treat yourself to observe and even provide some respite waters and foods where appropriate. Try a trail trek and take along some field glasses for close, quiet observations. It’s a wondrous treat!
How do we sustain such visitations? Truth be told, there are frequent travelers that come our way. In Texas it is reported that one in every three migratory birds come through our flyways. Those of us near the Guadalupe River or frequenters of other major Texas riverbeds get to behold this treat. Protecting and setting aside open lands for the wild to thrive should be a passion shared by us all! Share your own observations and images at www.comalconservation.org.
Five Incredible Ways Birds Change Their Bodies for Spring and Fall Migration
To power perilous journeys, birds undergo extreme feats like doubling their body weight and rearranging or even consuming their internal organs.
By Kevin Johnson
April 09, 2021
April 09, 2021
It’s tempting to compare bird migration to marathon running. In both, participants prepare intensely and undergo an extreme test of endurance. But the similarities stop there. Though marathon runners push the human body to its limits—during the 26.2-mile race, core temperatures spike to 102 degrees Fahrenheit and the heart pumps three to four times more blood than usual—birds radically change their bodies and their metabolism for the main event. In just weeks or months, they undergo physical transformation unmatched by human gains from years of training. To fly vast distances between breeding and wintering grounds, birds can shrink their internal organs, rapidly gain and burn through fat stores, barely sleep, and more.
These are incredible abilities, but they come with tradeoffs. The energy required to fly hundreds or thousands of miles in a short span leaves birds with little room for error during migration, and vulnerable to natural and human-caused threats. In North America alone, an estimated 2.6 billion birds disappear between fall and spring migration every year. Researchers pin many of these losses on migration, when birds must survive storms and cold snaps, navigate skyscrapers and other buildings, avoid predators, and successfully forage for food or else fail to complete their journeys.
Migration is perilous, but it’s also wondrous. Here are some of the incredible ways birds sculpt their bodies for their journeys.
DOUBLE THEIR BODY WEIGHT
A bird’s first inkling that it’s time to shift into migration mode comes from seasonal changes in its surroundings, says Paul Bartell, professor of avian biology at Penn State University. When the days shorten at the end of
summer, birds undergo hyperphagia: They eat excessive amounts of food for two weeks or more to store fat before migration. During this time, birds gorge on high-energy berries and fruits loaded with carbohydrates and lipids, which are stored as fat.
Birds’ reliance on fat is unusual in the animal kingdom. “It's remarkable that they're using fats as fuel,” says Scott McWilliams, professor of wildlife ecology and physiology at the University of Rhode Island. People, for example, rely primarily on carbohydrates for endurance activities because our system can efficiently convert them to usable energy. But for birds, fat makes sense. Fat is lighter and less bulky than carbohydrates and protein—important for lightweight, small-framed bodies that must stay aloft by wingbeat. Plus, fat contains more energy than carbs. “You get the most energy per gram that you store, if you want to fly long distance,” McWilliams says. As they fly, birds can replenish fat by taking breaks to refuel. This is why it’s so important to grow native plants that produce the lipid-rich berries birds need.
Ruby-throated Hummingbirds are best known for packing on the grams: Most double their body weight in fat, or more, before embarking on migrations. Some even gain close to half that in just four days. They need it, since their metabolism is one of the highest of any animal on Earth. They require the human equivalent of over 150,000 calories every day to power their fast-moving heart and wings, which can beat 1,000 and 3,000 times per minute, respectively. That fat accumulated before migration is burned in a steady release of energy, ideal for the 2,000-mile journey many Ruby-throated Hummingbirds make twice a year.
TRANSFORM INTERNAL ORGANS
All that fat added on to a bird’s small frame can’t just sit anywhere—it must be distributed properly. To make it all fit, many birds are able to shrink and grow their internal organs. Take the Bar-tailed Godwit, one of the bird world’s most intense migrators, flying 6,800 miles nonstop from Alaska to New Zealand each fall. To make room for energy-rich fat, godwits absorb into their body 25 percent of the tissue comprising their liver, kidneys, and digestive tract. This happens through a natural cellular process that lets the body recycle and clean up its cells and tissues called autophagy (which means "self-eating" in Greek). Godwits also increase the size of their heart and chest muscles to distribute extra energy and oxygen to these highly active areas mid-flight.
“Flying is the most energy-intensive form of locomotion,” McWilliams says. “But it's also more efficient if you want to go farther, faster. You actually get better fuel economy when you use fat as fuel for a flying animal compared to a runner.”
Birds also undergo organ transformation during hyperphagia. While gorging on berries and bugs to gain weight, songbirds like Blackpoll Warblers
expand their digestive tract to process more food, and quickly shrink and re-absorb parts of the same system during migration as they burn fat. According to McWilliams, this keeps energy focused on the most important flight muscles, reducing any need for frequent fueling at stopover sites.
GREATLY REDUCE THEIR SLEEP TIME
The need for sleep might be a barrier to human endurance, but for birds it’s just another physiological rule to break. During migration, a neurological shift instigated by the changing season forces birds to adapt to nocturnal habits and sleep less. How do birds rest while in mid-air? Very quickly. Swainson’s Thrushes, which undertake 3,000-mile migrations from Central and South America to northern Canada and Alaska, enter a sleep-like state for about nine seconds at a time. They keep one half of their brain awake to avoid predators or mid-air collisions while the other half rests.
The neurological change from breeding- and wintering-season sleep habits to migration sleep is as crucial to bird endurance as metabolic changes, says Bartell. “They are somehow resilient to all this increased fat and the detrimental effects of staying up almost all night,” he says. “And they actually performed better than if they were in a non-migratory state.”
CONSUME THEIR OWN MUSCLES
When endurance athletes exhaust their carbohydrate and fat supplies, they face dehydration and starvation. For humans, those needs can put an end to any athletic performance. But birds have a last-ditch backup: They can burn their muscles for energy, a trick that some birds use to their advantage. Experiments done in a wind tunnel in 2011 revealed how Swainson’s Thrushes—typically flying up to 200 miles in a single stretch during migration—even burn muscle unnecessarily so they can fly farther and reach the most beneficial stopover sites. It is risky, though, if they can’t recover that lost muscle after migration.
REVERT TO THEIR PREVIOUS FORM
Once birds reach their destination, they need to regain their organ function and shape, and refuel now-emaciated fat stores. It’s an urgent task during spring migration because soon as they reach their breeding ground, birds must do the hard work of breeding: attracting mates, and producing and
raising hungry young chicks—all while still taking care of themselves. “Essentially, they need to instantly start making territories and reproducing,” Bartell says. “If they can’t get food within a couple hours or are delayed after landing, they can actually starve to death.”
The stakes are lower during fall migration because birds don't need to breed upon landing, plus the warmer, tropical areas in the south tend to have more food available. “All they're trying to do usually is maintain the body mass at a certain level and get through the winter,” McWilliams says. Birds on average need to restore between 17 and 23 percent of their body weight in fat upon arrival, and also account for significant protein and water loss depending on their species and migratory pattern.
It's an astounding balance to maintain while already undergoing spectacular trips across the world. But if we've learned anything about birds and migration at this point, it's that we shouldn't be surprised by anything.
Catch the Bird Migration in Landa Park
Whether you’re a devoted birder or a casual observer, Landa Park is a great destination for bird watching. This scenic park provides nesting and feeding habitat for a large variety of bird species, both seasonally and year-round. The park’s 51 acres of green space include the Comal Springs, plants and groves of trees that support a great variety of birds, from yellow crowned night herons to red- shouldered hawks.
“We are fortunate to live in an area that is part of several migratory flyways, where there are abundant numbers of costal and shore birds, seasonal visitors from the south and west and many woodland species. Landa Park is a choice destination for any bird lover.”
— Dan Tharp
The Most Popular Birding Areas in Comal County, TX
WaxwingEco Tourism analyzed all of the Ebird data from 2015 and determined which birding hotspots in Comal County, TX had the most bird sightings.
- Guadalupe River SP (HOTE 077)
- Landa Park (HOTE 069)
- Canyon Lake--Dam & Nature Trl below dam (HOTE 073)
- New Braunfels- Cypress Bend Pk
- Bracken Bat Cave area
- Honey Creek SNA
- New Braunfels- Faust St. Bridge area
- Canyon Lake--Cranes Mill Pk
- Natural Bridge Caverns area (Comal Co.)
- Canyon Lake--Overlook Park/SE Nature trails
- Natural Bridges Wildlife Ranch
By Clifford E. Shackelford, Edward R. Rozenburg, W. Chuck Hunter and Mark W. Lockwood
WHY IS THERE AN INTEREST IN MIGRATORY BIRDS IN TEXAS?
Of the 338 species that are listed as Nearctic-Neotropical migrants in North America (north of Mexico), 333 of them (or 98.5%) have been recorded in Texas. This means that of the 615 species of birds documented in Texas, 54% of them are Nearctic-Neotropical migratory birds. Texas is important to these migrants and these migrants are important to Texas.
WHAT EXACTLY IS A NEARCTIC-NEOTROPICAL MIGRANT?
These species are collectively known by a host of other names. The species that comprise this group basically breed in temperate latitudes (i.e., U.S. and Canada), but leave for the winter for tropical latitudes farther south (i.e., Central and South America). Their migratory habits are part of their lives and heritage.
BIRD MIGRATION SEASONS
*Common names follow the 7th edition of the AOU Checklist.
Added modifiers in quotes represent distinct subspecies.
Last updated: February 8, 2022
Photos courtesy of : K. Draper
Photos courtesy of : K. Draper
If you ever wanted to spot a hummer, Texas is among the best destinations to make your wish come true. The state hosts around 18 different species, with the dominant ruby-throated (Archilochus colubris), black-chinned (Archilochus alexandri), Anna's (Calypte anna), and rufous (Selasphorus rufus) hummingbirds. Some species breed here, whereas others winter or stay all year round. Anyway, the chances of encountering one of these entertaining little creatures is enhanced during spring and fall hummingbird migrations, which roughly peak in March to May and August to October.
Some of the most promising spots to check out include Highland Lakes west of Austin and Hill Country in Central Texas, north-west of San Antonio. The most avid birdwatchers are welcome to Big Bend National Park and Padre Island National Seashore to chase all-year residents. However, you can also catch a glimpse of a hummer elsewhere across the state, including large metropolises such as Houston.
Ruby-throated hummingbirds are the most remarkable in Texas. A wee bird weighing some 0.1 oz (3 g) can travel for 1,500 mi (2,400 km) from its breeding grounds reaching southern areas of Canada to winter homes in Mexico and Central America. You could search for a long time and finally see (or not) a single hummer. But knowing the right time and place, you can observe swarms of 25–40 ruby-throats at a time!
Rockport-Fulton HummerBird Celebration September 15 18, 2022
The secret is Rockport-Fulton HummerBird Celebration held annually in mid-September near Corpus Christi. On their southern migration, ruby-throated hummingbirds stop by coastal Texas to fatten up at human-made feeders before the non-stop flight across the Gulf of Mexico. During the celebration, locals open their gardens to both birds and the public, so mesmerizing sightings are guaranteed. Stand still and quiet, and they will come right up to your side.
Some Texans used to take the feeders down after Labor Day for the fear the birds would postpone their migration while food is aplenty, but lately, things have changed. Ornithologists claim that the trigger setting hummers on the move is the day's length rather than the lack of food, so feeders are relevant all year round.
Just in case you'd like to buy a feeder and prepare your artificial nectar, the recipe is one part sugar to four parts water. No food coloring allowed—the red vessel itself is attractive enough for a hummingbird. Note that in summer, the mixture will soon turn into toxic alcohol. So clean your feeder up on time.
By Sheree Cardwell
March 7, 2022
March 7, 2022
Spring bird migration occurs each year from March1st to June 15th for the Texas Gulf Coast and the Houston area is rated number 4 on the list of Gulf Coast locations to catch this beautiful phenomenon. In a study done by Kyle Horton, of the Cornell Lab, it was found that “the Texas Coast had five times more migrant birds detected than any other area in the Gulf Coast.” “Peak Beak Week” is the last week of April and the perfect location to pull out the binoculars and birding scopes is the Baytown Nature Center.
The Baytown Nature Center (BNC), located at 6213 Bayway Drive, is a 500-acre peninsula that consists of hardwood uplands, high quality tidal marsh, and freshwater wetlands. This unique site is listed on the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail, providing habitat for 317 species of resident and neo-tropical migrant birds. The American Bird Conservancy designated the BNC as a nationally important bird area. Birding blinds dot the BNC as well as a few other birding hotspots that including seating.
Want to get the best look at the Ruby-throated Hummingbirds that will converge on the BNC early March to late April (the highest numbers occur the first 2 weeks of March)? Just sit on one of the benches in the Butterfly Gardens and get ready to watch the birds dance from flower to flower. The BNC is along the breeding range for these beautiful birds.
April 19 to May 7 is historically the busiest window for spring passage among a group of Neotropical migratory songbird species, including American Redstarts, Canada and Cape May Warblers, and Baltimore and Bullock’s Orioles.
The Baytown Nature Center isn’t just a birders oasis during peak migration periods. The BNC hosts Audubon Bird Counts year round and is home to just a few of these beautiful resident species: Great Blue Heron, Tricolored Heron, Great Egret, Roseate Spoonbills. For a more comprehensive list of bird species spotted at the BNC, visit this eBird list
Check out this short list of other birds you might spot this spring at the BNC:
By Mel White
April 28, 2016
April 28, 2016
Legendarily vast, Texas spans habitats from southern bald-cypress swamps to Chihuahuan Desert, from the subtropical lower Rio Grande Valley to the windswept plains of the Llano Estacado. Little wonder, then, that Texas’s bird list of nearly 650 ranks second among the states (behind only California).
The Lone Star state is home to some of the most famous birding sites in the country: High Island, Bolivar Flats, Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, Big Bend National Park. The list could go on and on.
Want to see a Whooping Crane, a Least Grebe, a Green Jay, a Golden-cheeked Warbler, or a Colima Warbler in the United States? Go to Texas. Want to experience some of the most exciting spring migration in the country? Be on the upper Texas coast in April. Want to visit the national park with the highest number of recorded bird species? Drive to Big Bend in far west Texas.
Texas has an extensive series of birding and wildlife trails covering scores of sites over the entire state. Odds are good they’ll lead you to an encounter with some other flying species, such as squirrels and bats, as well.
TEXAS BIRDING HOTSPOTS
Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge
One of the must-visit sites of American birding, Anahuac protects 34,000 acres of marsh, prairie, and scattered woods. Its richness of bird life makes it a place that can be explored over and over with something new seen every time.
Flocks of waterfowl from fall through spring, fifteen or more species of wading birds, rails and other marsh birds—these are just a few of the highlights of Anahuac. Roads lead from the visitor information station at the main entrance to East Bay, an arm of Galveston Bay, accessing ponds, marshes, observation platforms, and trails. Though waterbirds are the highlight here, an area called The Willows, an isolated tract of trees just west of the entrance, can be a songbird magnet in migration.
A small sampling of breeding-season birds found here includes Black-bellied Whistling-Duck, Fulvous Whistling-Duck, Wood Stork (post-breeding visitor), Neotropic Cormorant, Least Bittern, Roseate Spoonbill, Black Rail, King Rail, Clapper Rail, Purple Gallinule, Common Gallinule, Black-necked Stilt, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Marsh Wren, Seaside Sparrow, and Dickcissel. In wet fields, marshes, and along the bay, look for dozens of species of shorebirds, gulls, and terns.
Don’t miss the Skillern Tract, reached south of Highway 1985 about seven miles east of the main refuge entrance. There can be shorebirds in the fields here and the trails can be good for waterbirds and migrant songbirds.
For a few weeks each spring, this small town less than a mile from the Texas coast becomes a busy gathering place for birds and birders. Northbound migrant birds, having crossed the Gulf of Mexico, fly down to the woodland tracts here to rest and feed, in the proper conditions creating a “fallout” with birds seemingly crowding every limb of every tree: flycatchers, vireos, thrushes, warblers, tanagers, orioles, and more.
Birders swarm these woods, too, exchanging news of sightings. Several sanctuaries are located in High Island, and some have kiosks with volunteers providing advice and leading bird walks.
The action starts in March and peaks in late April and early May. There’s no guarantee that any particular day will be a great one, but the day after a storm or front with north winds is often the best. But in spring at High Island, even an average day is really good.
Bolivar Flats Shorebird Sanctuary
An amazing congregation of shorebirds and wading birds is often on display at Bolivar Flats, a coastal spot on the Bolivar Peninsula across the channel from Galveston. It’s reached by turning south on Rettilon Road about 3.6 miles east of the ferry landing in Port Bolivar. (A town parking permit, obtainable locally, is required.)
Practically every species of cormorant, pelican, heron, egret, ibis, plover, sandpiper, gull, tern, and similar bird that ever ventured near the Texas coast has appeared here. Many other species stop in or pass overhead, too, which explains the bird list of more than 320 for this one small spot on the coast.
Spring and late summer are good times at Bolivar Flats, but there’s always something to see here. In summer Magnificent Frigatebird soars out to sea, and in winter ducks bob in the waves. Reddish Egret, Roseate Spoonbill, and American Avocet add color to the scene. It’s a great place to set up a spotting scope and practice telling one “peep” or dowitcher from another.
Brazos Bend State Park
Sites on the Texas Gulf Coast get most of the publicity, but this state park 30 miles southwest of Houston is well worth a visit for its attractive scenery as well as its birds. Here, live oaks draped with Spanish moss and other hardwoods such as elm, hackberry, sycamore, pecan, and cottonwood create a lush landscape along the Brazos River and its tributary Big Creek.
Brazos Bend suffered flood damage in 2015 but reopened in 2016, still a fine birding destination. The park has a nature center that interprets the habitats here.
Look on park lakes and wetlands for Black-bellied Whistling-Duck, Pied-billed Grebe, Neotropic Cormorant, Anhinga, many species of waders including both night-herons and Roseate Spoonbill, and Purple Gallinule. Fulvous Whistling-Duck and Least Grebe are seen occasionally.
Some of the breeding birds here are Least Bittern, Mississippi Kite, Red-shouldered Hawk, King Rail, Black-necked Stilt, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Barred Owl, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Prothonotary Warbler, and Painted Bunting. Winter waterfowl and abundant migrant songbirds in spring add to the park’s appeal.
Aransas National Wildlife Refuge
A superb all-around birding destination, Aransas occupies a large peninsula surrounded by coastal bays, separated from the Gulf of Mexico by barrier islands. It boasts an astoundingly lengthy bird list of more than 400 species, yet the refuge is known best for one bird.
The Whooping Crane stands (nearly five feet tall) as a symbol of American endangered species—both in critical population decline and in recovery. Once down to 15 birds, the species has made a hopeful comeback and now numbers several hundred. The original wild flock of the species nests in northern Canada and winters at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the Texas Gulf Coast.
Each year, hundreds of people come to the area to see these striking birds. The best way to see them is to take a commercial tour from Rockport or Port Aransas, in the season from November to April. These tours almost always find Whooping Cranes as they cruise Aransas Bay and other waterways near the refuge.
Whooping Cranes are sometimes seen from the observation tower located along the refuge’s 16-mile auto tour route. Whether they’re present or not, a birding trip to Aransas is always a memorable experience. Waterfowl, grebes, and rails are present in wetlands from fall through spring. Ponds, marshes, and bays are home year round to cormorants, pelicans, 14 or more species of wading birds (including Roseate Spoonbill), and around eight species of terns. The refuge’s location makes it possible to see a great diversity of migrant birds following the shore of the Gulf of Mexico.
A few of the breeding birds of Aransas are White-tailed Hawk, Purple Gallinule, Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Crested Caracara, Brown-crested Flycatcher, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, and Painted Bunting. But this list barely touches the migrants, wintering birds, and rarities that truly make Aransas one of best birding sites in the country.
Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge
More species of birds have been recorded at Laguna Atascosa (417) than at any other national wildlife refuge in the nation.
Laguna Atascosa covers 97,000 acres near the southern tip of Texas, comprising thornscrub forest, freshwater wetlands, prairies, beaches, and mudflats. A quarter-million ducks winter in the area, including most of the North American population of Redhead. Grebes, American White Pelican, and Sandhill Crane also winter here. Around 30 species of shorebirds can be found here throughout much of the year.
Many birders visit the refuge to see some of the specialties of southern Texas and the Lower Rio Grande Valley, such as Plain Chachalaca, Least Grebe, White-tailed Kite, Harris’s Hawk, White-tailed Hawk, White-tipped Dove, Groove-billed Ani, Common Pauraque, Buff-bellied Hummingbird, Golden-fronted Woodpecker, Crested Caracara, Brown-crested Flycatcher, Great Kiskadee, Green Jay, Black-crested Titmouse, Curve-billed Thrasher, Long-billed Thrasher, Botteri’s Sparrow, Olive Sparrow, Pyrrhuloxia, Bronzed Cowbird, and Altamira Oriole.
Laguna Atascosa is home to a small population of endangered ocelots, and the popular 15-mile wildlife drive has been closed to vehicles to protect the cats. It’s still open to hiking and bicycling. A modified driving route is set to open in the near future.
Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge
So many wonderful birding sites are located in the Lower Rio Grande Valley that it’s hard to single out one, or even a handful. Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, comprising 2,088 acres on the Rio Grande south of Alamo, has long been a favorite destination of birders from around the world, with its woodlands and wetlands.
Santa Ana has a fine visitor center, with a log of recent bird sightings. From here, many trails wind into the woods. From November through April, the refuge operates a tram (fee) along the auto tour route, which is closed to vehicles in that season, though it can be walked.
Many of the region’s specialties are seen here, including Plain Chachalaca, Least Grebe, White-tipped Dove, Groove-billed Ani, Common Pauraque, Buff-bellied Hummingbird, Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet, Great Kiskadee,
Green Jay, Clay-colored Thrush, Long-billed Thrasher, Olive Sparrow, and Altamira Oriole, to name only a few of the most regular species. Some Santa Ana visitors also find less-common birds such as Hook-billed Kite, Gray Hawk, Elf Owl, Green Kingfisher, and Tropical Parula.
Sixteen miles west, south of Mission, Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park hosts many of these same species, and most birders visiting the area explore both sites, along with Edinburg Scenic Wetlands, in Edinburg, Frontera Audubon Center in Weslaco, and Estero Llano Grande State Park, southeast of Weslaco.
Mitchell Lake Audubon Center
An all-around birding site just south of downtown San Antonio, Mitchell Lake Audubon Center includes woodland, wetlands, and a 600-acre lake. At the center of the area are former wastewater-treatment ponds, now renowned for shorebirds from late summer through spring.
Some of the birds often seen on the lake and wetlands include Black-bellied Whistling-Duck, Least Grebe, Neotropic Cormorant, Anhinga, American White Pelican, many species of wading birds (including Roseate Spoonbill in late summer), and Black-necked Stilt.
Among nesting birds are Greater Roadrunner, Groove-billed Ani (scarce), Black-chinned Hummingbird, Golden-fronted Woodpecker, Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Crested Caracara, Ash-throated Flycatcher, Brown-crested Flycatcher, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Cave Swallow, Verdin, Long-billed Thrasher, Olive Sparrow (scarce), Painted Bunting, Orchard Oriole, and Bullock’s Oriole.
The center has a very active educational program for the community, and an excellent trail system provides access to different habitats here.
Lost Maples State Natural Area
The beautiful Texas Hill Country is worth visiting for its scenery and rivers, and it holds great rewards for birders. The two most famous avian residents are Black-capped Vireo and Golden-cheeked Warbler, endangered species that nest here and are sought after by birders.
Lost Maples State Natural Area is one place that combines beauty and birds. Named for a disjoined population of bigtooth maples, it’s especially popular and crowded when the trees change color in fall.
It’s easiest to find the warbler and vireo when they’re singing in spring and early summer, though both are uncommon. Other nesting birds here include Wild Turkey, Greater Roadrunner, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Black-chinned Hummingbird, Green Kingfisher (scarce), Ash-throated Flycatcher, Yellow-throated Vireo, Hutton’s Vireo, Western Scrub-Jay, Black-crested Titmouse, Louisiana Waterthrush, Rufous-crowned Sparrow, Painted Bunting, Scott’s Oriole, and Lesser Goldfinch.
Forty-five miles north, South Llano River State Park is another attractive spot with Black-capped Vireo and Golden-cheeked Warbler, as well as very similar birds to those at Lost Maples
This reservoir northeast of Dallas is a favorite destination for local birders. On the west side, 376-acre Lake Tawakoni State Park is one spot from which to scan the lake for wintering waterfowl, loons, grebes, American White Pelican, and Bald Eagle. Osprey is seen in migration. Neotropic Cormorant is seen year round, and Crested Caracara is found regularly.
Nesting birds include Cooper’s Hawk, Red-shouldered Hark, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Lark Sparrow, Blue Grosbeak, Indigo Bunting, Painted Bunting, Dickcissel, and Orchard Oriole. Greater Roadrunner is seen occasionally. The patches of woods here can be good spots to look for spring migrant songbirds.
A few miles southeast, Highway 47 crosses the dam for the lake, where there is a parking lot at the west end. The woods below the dam along the Sabine River can be excellent for spring migrants. Nesting birds include Wood Duck, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Pileated Woodpecker, Louisiana Waterthrush, Black-and-white Warbler, Prothonotary Warbler, Kentucky Warbler, Yellow-throated Warbler, Painted Bunting, and Orchard Oriole.
Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge
Five species of geese winter on this refuge, at times in enormous flocks—up to 10,000 have been estimated in one field, for example. Hagerman lies along the shore of the southern arm of Lake Texoma, on the route of the Central Flyway, so waterfowl find it a welcome rest stop on migration and a hospitable home in winter.
Geese—Greater White-fronted, Snow, Ross’s, Cackling, and Canada—make up part of the waterfowl numbers, with 15 or more species of ducks added. Bald Eagle winters here, ready to make a meal of any injured birds. American White Pelican is present year round, and Roseate Spoonbill can arrive as a post-breeding visitor.
Hagerman’s bird list of 338 species includes more than 35 species of shorebirds that feed in shallow water and mudflats, along with more than 15 species of wading birds attracted to the wetlands.
A four-mile wildlife drive passes along the lakeshore, and several hiking trails access woodland (including some bottomland forest), grassland, and ponds.
Nesting birds at Hagerman include Wood Duck, Northern Bobwhite, Wild Turkey, Pied-billed Grebe, Neotropic Cormorant, Tricolored Heron, Mississippi Kite, Common Gallinule, Black-necked Stilt, Least Tern, Greater Roadrunner, Red-headed Woodpecker, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Loggerhead Shrike, Prothonotary Warbler, Grasshopper Sparrow, Painted Bunting, and Dickcissel.
Big Bend National Park
Big Bend ranks with America’s great birding destinations, and if offers endless fascination for hikers, geology buffs, photographers, history-lovers, botanists, and people who enjoy dramatic, rugged landscapes. Situated on the Rio Grande in western Texas, the park doesn’t receive nearly the visitation its rewards truly merit.
Big Bend comprises three main ecosystems: Most of the park is Chihuahuan Desert, a terrain of cactus and shrubs. In the center, the Chisos Mountains rise to more than 7,000 feet, with oak canyons and ponderosa pine. Along the Rio Grande is a lush green strip of cottonwoods, willows, and other wetland vegetation. All this contributes to Big Bend’s great diversity of birds.
The park’s most sought-after species is Colima Warbler, which nests in the Chisos Mountains, usually requiring a several-mile hike to find. Other birds of the Chisos include Zone-tailed Hawk (scarce), Band-tailed Pigeon, Acorn Woodpecker, Cordilleran Flycatcher, Hutton’s Vireo, Mexican Jay, Painted Redstart, and Hepatic Tanager.
More likely in lower elevations are such species as Scaled Quail, Common Black-Hawk, Gray Hawk, Greater Roadrunner, Elf Owl, Lesser Nighthawk, Common Poorwill, Vermilion Flycatcher, Ash-throated Flycatcher, Brown-crested Flycatcher, Cactus Wren, Verdin, Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, Curve-billed Thrasher, Crissal Thrasher, Pyrrhuloxia, Varied Bunting, and Scott’s Oriole. Several species of hummingbirds are seen here, including Lucifer, which has a very limited range in the United States.
These lists are only an introduction to the wonders of Big Bend, which has the highest total bird list of any national park. The ideal time to visit is from mid-April through May.
Buffalo Lake National Wildlife Refuge
This refuge 25 miles southwest of Amarillo protects a 175-acre tract of native shortgrass prairie of such quality that it has been designated a National Natural Landmark. It’s a good place to see many open-country birds, as well as seasonal waterfowl and shorebirds.
The lake for which the refuge was named has dried up because of overuse of the local aquifer. However, the refuge manages other wetlands that act as a virtual magnet for birds in this arid region. From fall through spring many species of ducks use these wetlands, and some, such as Cinnamon Teal and Redhead, remain to nest. Black-necked Stilt and American Avocet breed here, and more than 25 species of shorebirds have been recorded in migration.
Some of the nesting birds here are Wild Turkey, Mississippi Kite, Greater Roadrunner, Burrowing Owl, Golden-fronted Woodpecker, Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Say’s Phoebe, Ash-throated Flycatcher, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Chihuahuan Raven, Rock Wren, Cassin’s Sparrow, Grasshopper Sparrow, Lark Sparrow, Dickcissel, and Bullock’s Oriole.
In winter look for Bald Eagle, Ferruginous Hawk, Rough-legged Hawk, Sandhill Crane, Prairie Falcon, Mountain Bluebird, longspurs, and American Tree Sparrow.
Great Texas Wildlife Trail
This is where it all started—where the birding trail concept was pioneered in the 1990s. Still luring birdwatchers from all over the world, the Great Texas Wildlife Trail offers good birding throughout the year, but the upper coast is at its best in spring migration when songbirds crossing the Gulf of Mexico make landfall. When the timing is right, you’ll find trees filled with colorful congregations of warblers, orioles, tanagers, and buntings. Most famous for water birds, the central coast is highlighted by the wintering population of whooping cranes centered in the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. Now readily seen from November to March, the cranes are not the only spectacles here; you might also encounter shaggy-plumed reddish egrets, blazing pink roseate spoonbills, and beautifully patterned white-tailed hawks. The lower coast trail takes in a magical region where dozens of species spill across the border from Mexico, enlivening the American landscape with a mosaic of surprises—noisy ringed kingfishers, like belted kingfishers on steroids; great kiskadees that seem too colorful for the flycatcher family; and green jays, which provide a shocking departure from their relatives’ blue tones. —Kenn Kaufman
Originally published January 2007; updated August 2021
Geese winging their way south in wrinkled V-shaped flocks is perhaps the classic picture of migration—the annual, large-scale movement of birds between their breeding (summer) homes and their nonbreeding (winter) grounds. But geese are far from our only migratory birds. Of the more than 650 species of North American breeding birds, more than half are migratory.
WHY DO BIRDS MIGRATE?
Birds migrate to move from areas of low or decreasing resources to areas of high or increasing resources. The two primary resources being sought are food and nesting locations. Here’s more about how migration evolved.
Birds that nest in the Northern Hemisphere tend to migrate northward in the spring to take advantage of burgeoning insect populations, budding plants and an abundance of nesting locations. As winter approaches and the availability of insects and other food drops, the birds move south again. Escaping the cold is a motivating factor but many species, including hummingbirds, can withstand freezing temperatures as long as an adequate supply of food is available.
Types Of MigrationThe term migration describes periodic, large-scale movements of populations of animals. One way to look at migration is to consider the distances traveled.
The pattern of migration can vary within each category, but is most variable in short and medium distance migrants.
ORIGINS OF LONG-DISTANCE MIGRATION
While short-distance migration probably developed from a fairly simple need for food, the origins of long-distant migration patterns are much more complex. They’ve evolved over thousands of years and are controlled at least partially by the genetic makeup of the birds. They also incorporate responses to weather, geography, food sources, day length, and other factors.
For birds that winter in the tropics, it seems strange to imagine leaving home and embarking on a migration north. Why make such an arduous trip north in spring? One idea is that through many generations the tropical ancestors of these birds dispersed from their tropical breeding sites northward. The seasonal abundance of insect food and greater day length allowed them to raise more young (4–6 on average) than their stay-at-home tropical relatives (2–3 on average). As their breeding zones moved north during periods of glacial retreat, the birds continued to return to their tropical homes as winter weather and declining food supplies made life more difficult. Supporting this theory is the fact that most North American vireos, flycatchers, tanagers, warblers, orioles, and swallows have evolved from forms that originated in the tropics.
WHAT TRIGGERS MIGRATION?
The mechanisms initiating migratory behavior vary and are not always completely understood. Migration can be triggered by a combination of changes in day length, lower temperatures, changes in food supplies, and genetic predisposition. For centuries, people who have kept cage birds have noticed that the migratory species go through a period of restlessness each spring and fall, repeatedly fluttering toward one side of their cage. German behavioral scientists gave this behavior the name zugunruhe, meaning migratory restlessness. Different species of birds and even segments of the population within the same species may follow different migratory patterns.
HOW DO BIRDS MIGRATE?
Migrating birds can cover thousands of miles in their annual travels, often traveling the same course year after year with little deviation. First-year birds often make their very first migration on their own. Somehow they can find their winter home despite never having seen it before, and return the following spring to where they were born.
The secrets of their amazing navigational skills aren’t fully understood, partly because birds combine several different types of senses when they navigate. Birds can get compass information from the sun, the stars, and by sensing the earth’s magnetic field. They also get information from the position of the setting sun and from landmarks seen during the day. There’s even evidence that sense of smell plays a role, at least for homing pigeons.
Some species, particularly waterfowl and cranes, follow preferred pathways on their annual migrations. These pathways are often related to important stopover locations that provide food supplies critical to the birds’ survival. Smaller birds tend to migrate in broad fronts across the landscape. Studies using eBird data have revealed that many small birds take different routes in spring and fall, to take advantage of seasonal patterns in weather and food.
Taking a journey that can stretch to a round-trip distance of several thousand miles is a dangerous and arduous undertaking. It is an effort that tests both the birds’ physical and mental capabilities. The physical stress of the trip, lack of adequate food supplies along the way, bad weather, and increased exposure to predators all add to the hazards of the journey.
In recent decades long-distant migrants have been facing a growing threat from communication towers and tall buildings. Many species are attracted to the lights of tall buildings and millions are killed each year in collisions with the structures. The Fatal Light Awareness Program, based in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, and BirdCast’s Lights Out project, have more about this problem.
Scientists use several techniques in studying migration, including banding, satellite tracking, and a relatively new method involving lightweight devices known as geolocators. One of the goals is to locate important stopover and wintering locations. Once identified, steps can be taken to protect and save these key locations.
Each spring approximately 500,000 Sandhill Cranes and some endangered Whooping Cranes use the Central Platte River Valley in Nebraska as a staging habitat during their migration north to breeding and nesting grounds in Canada, Alaska, and the Siberian Arctic.
Giant live oak trees, like these in High Island, Texas, attract many of our most beautiful birds after their spring journey across the Gulf of Mexico. Clockwise from top left: Baltimore Oriole, Indigo Bunting, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Bay-breasted Warbler, Blue Grosbeak, Scarlet Tanager, Black-throated Green Warbler, Orchard Oriole, Black-and-white Warbler, Blackburnian Warbler.
WHAT IS A MIGRATION TRAP?
Giant live oak trees, like these in High Island, Texas, attract many of our most beautiful birds after their spring journey across the Gulf of Mexico. Clockwise from top left: Baltimore Oriole, Indigo Bunting, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Bay-breasted Warbler, Blue Grosbeak, Scarlet Tanager, Black-throated Green Warbler, Orchard Oriole, Black-and-white Warbler, Blackburnian Warbler.Some places seem to have a knack for concentrating migrating birds in larger than normal numbers. These “migrant traps” often become well known as birding hotspots. This is typically the result of local weather conditions, an abundance of food, or the local topography.
For example, small songbirds migrating north in the spring fly directly over the Gulf of Mexico, landing on the coastlines of the Gulf Coast states. When, storms or cold fronts bring headwinds, these birds can be near exhaustion when they reach land. In such cases they head for the nearest location offering food and cover—typically live-oak groves on barrier islands, where very large numbers of migrants can collect in what’s known as a “fallout.” These migration traps have become very popular with birders, even earning international reputations.
Peninsulas can also concentrate migrating birds as they follow the land and then pause before launching over water. This explains why places like Point Pelee, Ontario; the Florida Keys; Point Reyes, California; and Cape May, New Jersey have great reputations as migration hotspots.
Spring migration is an especially good time for those that feed birds in their backyard to attract species they normally do not see. Offering a variety of food sources, water, and adding natural food sources to the landscape can make a backyard attractive to migrating songbirds.
It’s always a good idea to use the range maps in your field guide to determine if and when a particular species might be around. Range maps are especially useful when working with migratory species. However, they can be confusing: ranges of birds can vary year-to-year, as with irruptive species such as redpolls. Also, the ranges of some species can expand or contract fairly rapidly, with changes occurring in time periods shorter than the republication time of a field guide. (The Eurasian Collared-Dove is the best example of this problem.)
These limitations are beginning to be addressed by data-driven, digital versions of range maps. The maps are made possible by the hundreds of millions of eBird observations submitted by birdwatchers around the world. “Big Data” analyses are allowing scientists to produce animated maps that show a species’ ebb and flow across the continent throughout a calendar year—as well as understand larger patterns of movement.
GET YOUR BIRDCAST FORECAST IN REAL TIME
When, where, and how far will birds migrate? The BirdCast project is developing the ability to forecast this—almost like getting a weather report.
It’s a bird watcher’s boon, and it’s also crucial information for conservation. By knowing where birds are and when, important conservation decisions can be made, such as placement of wind turbines and reducing building lights on specific high-migration nights, to prevent the deaths of millions of birds.
Accurate migration models also have broader applications, allowing researchers to understand behavioral aspects of migration, how migration timing and pathways respond to changing climate, and whether linkages exist between variation in migration timing and subsequent changes in population size.
BirdCast issues 3-day migration forecasts each spring and fall migration season and displays near-real-time radar data on migration activity each night.
Stretching for more than 5,000 miles from Central and South America and to the polar regions of North America, the Central Flyway shares many of the same attributes of the Mississippi Flyway. Still, it is distinct enough to be included as its own flyway since many of the birds use the eastern edge of the Rocky Mountains and the American prairie as navigational guides, rather than the river.
Bird Migration: Birds of the Central Flyway
The states generally covered by the Central flyway include Alaska, Colorado, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas, Utah and Wyoming.
A portion of Canada is also included in the Central flyway. The provinces and territories these birds head toward include Alberta, British Columbia, Northwest Territories, Nunavut, Saskatchewan and Yukon Territory.
The other flyways of North America include the Pacific, the Atlantic and the Mississippi. Flyway maps on other birding sites can be slightly different than the one you see above — showing fewer states for each flyway. We opted to be more inclusive in which areas to include in the Central Flyway.
LIST OF MIGRATORY BIRDS
Bird Life International says almost 400 bird species use the Central Flyway, and the sheer number of species using it makes it extremely important.
Of course, many bird species will not travel the entire flyway while migrating. Instead, most travel just far enough to find available food. By providing feeders along the route, you help birds maintain their strength during the journey, no matter what its length. Among those species using the Central Flyway, there are plenty of feeder birds, including:
HOW YOU CAN HELP
In previous editions of this series, we covered providing food and water, maintaining a clean habitat for your backyard birds and provide shelter for those stopping briefly in your yard.
On a broader level, the best way to assist your bird friends is to help educate. Throughout the year, there are easy-to-join bird count activities where citizen scientists help collect data for ornithologists and biologists.
During these activities, volunteers are asked to keep an accurate record of the birds they see in their backyards, at nearby parks and other locales. This information helps scientists understand changes in population and range among the birds across the country.
Other citizen scientist projects ask volunteers to monitor wild bird nests, assist in banding activities and even help with rebuild and maintain habitats. Many of these require a certain degree of training before you can participate, so try contacting local organizations to see what you can do.
In regard to injured baby or abandoned baby birds, it’s important to rely on the networks set up to help these birds. Rather than try to raise an orphaned chick or injured bird, contact a local wild life rehabilitator.
So, in other words, to help the birds you love, reach out to the organizations that are specially trained in wildlife rehabilitation!
Considering the variety of terrain this flyway covers, you need to include some rugged feeders in your backyard. This territory can be hit by sudden snow squalls at a moments notice. Likewise, these same feeders need to be resistant to any non-birds eager to dig through them.
How a children's book about the endangered Golden-cheeked Warbler became part of a movement to
embrace Indigenous languages in Mexico.
embrace Indigenous languages in Mexico.
Maria de los Angeles Azuara couldn’t hold back tears when she heard two dozen children singing at a small school in the Mexican state of Chiapas. Guided by their music teacher, the elementary students performed a song they’d adapted about a new friend, a young Golden-cheeked Warbler named Chipilo who lived in the same mountains they did. He connected them, they sang, with “the only world that can cover us both / the world in which we all live.”
The children sang in Spanish—the second language of their Indigenous Tsotsil Mayan community. It was 2015, and only a couple of months had passed since Azuara and colleagues had started working with 28 teachers from several Indigenous schools in Chiapas. As the environmental education program director at the non-profit Pronatura Sur, her job was to convince teachers to include a children’s book called The Tale of Chipilo Crisopario (La Historia de Chipilo Crisopario in Spanish) as part of their classes.
Pronatura is working to conserve the endangered Golden-cheeked Warbler’s overwintering habitat, the pine-oak forests that grow across Chiapas’ mountains and extend south through Guatemala, Honduras, and parts of El Salvador and Nicaragua. When Azuara heard the song inspired by the book, she was thrilled. “I’ve always believed a children’s book is an extremely powerful tool to create change,” she says. “And Chipilo has proved it to me.”
RiveraChipilo has become a cornerstone of Pronatura’s environmental education, a fun tool for helping to instill a conservation ethic in children, with the hopes that they will care about and protect the natural world throughout their lives. The book has reached more than 3,000 children, mostly in Chiapas, many of whom are Tsotsil. In 2018 Pronatura had the book and accompanying lessons translated into Tsotsil. The Golden-cheeked Warbler doesn’t have ancient cultural significance for the community, but there are parallels: Just as the endangered songbird’s plight has long been neglected, so has their language. Translating Chipilo into Tsotsil is just one small part of a growing effort to dignify the country’s more than 68 Indigenous language groups, which are in turn divided into 364 language variations.
In Mexico, as in most Latin American countries, European languages are “power languages”—they inhabit streets, courthouses, hospitals, and schools, says linguistic anthropologist Margarita Martínez Perez, a native Tsotsil speaker. Indigenous languages have long been deemed inferior and relegated to private spaces. But in recent years, they’ve started to seep into public spaces. In the past decade, Tsotsil has begun to appear on street signs and social media and in rock music, comics, poems, and novels. “This is just the beginning,” Martínez says. “Chipilo’s book is just a little sprout of what’s to come.”
The Tsotsil version of Chipilo has been distributed, via CDs and USB flash drives to teachers; now Pronatura wants to do the same with the audiobook.
The story of Chipilo starts in 2003, the same year native languages were officially recognized in Mexico thanks to the decades-long efforts of Indigenous communities like Chiapas’ Zapatistas Movement. That year, Pronatura hired two young biologists, José Arturo García Domínguez and José Raúl Vázquez, to monitor the arrival of Golden-cheeked Warblers travelling from central Texas to the pine-oak forests in the Chiapas Highlands that support more than 300 bird species, of which 55 are migratory.
Back then, the warbler’s winter range distribution was still being mapped out, explains Claudia Macías Caballero, Pronatura’s deputy director of conservation. Observations of the bird were spotty, and no one really knew their wintering behavior that well. García and Vázquez were tasked with searching for the bird throughout 10 municipalities and following the mixed flocks in which the warblers traveled. For five months the duo woke up at 4 a.m. and set out before the firsts sun rays bathed the treetops. “It was so cold that you didn’t want to take your hands out of your jacket to hold the binoculars,” recalls Vázquez.
They started in central Chiapas and struggled to find their tiny targets. The scarcity was easily explained: The dense forests that the warblers require for foraging and roosting had been transformed into sparse stands, heavily logged for commercial lumber and for cooking and construction by the impoverished Indigenous communities. Across the species’ range, habitat degradation due to unregulated fires, logging and clearing land for agricultural development has fueled the bird’s decline. At the current deforestation rate, the remaining forests could disappear in 45 years.
Golden-cheeked Warblers breed in central Texas and migrate to southern forests such as this one, near San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico. Photo: Jorge Silva RiveraTheir luck changed when they headed north. As they neared a small town called Coapilla, they noticed the thick expanse of deep green covering the surrounding hills. Speaking with locals, a mix of mestizo and Zoque peoples, they learned that the community prioritized managing the forest sustainably, and restricted agriculture to the ejido—community-owned land managed according to Indigenous people. As a result, the landscape supported abundant wildlife. In just one week they made 10 of the approximately 40 sightings they recorded in all, García recalls.
Near Coapilla the forest was filled with birdsong, and García saw his first mythical quetzal. He found the healthy state of the landscape remarkable, and one afternoon, after following songbirds all morning, he started writing the migration story of a Golden-cheeked Warbler. He called the bird Chipilo Crisopario, a nod to the species’ common name in Spanish (chipe) and scientific name (Setophaga chrysoparia), and asked Vázquez, who liked drawing and carving birds out of wood, to illustrate the book. The tale follows the young bird as he journeys south and encounters a human-started fire, is saved by an old Turkey Vulture, and eventually arrives in Coapilla’s forests, where he reconnects with old friends and makes new ones, including a Resplendent Quetzal.
A few months later, in March 2004, the biologists presented the first draft of the text and 12 acrylic-paint illustrations to Pronatura’s Macías. Two years later, after securing financial support from The Nature Conservancy, the U.S. Wildlife and Fish Service, the U.S. Department of Defense, and the State of Chiapas, Pronatura printed 5,000 copies of Chipilo. Most ended up in school libraries and at environmental education nonprofits in the five countries where the Golden-cheeked Warbler winters.
The book was out there, but there was no guarantee that kids would pick it up. Chipilo had been translated into English in 2011, and Texan teachers were using that version in their classrooms. Inspired by their approach, in 2012 and 2013 the Pronatura team created lessons to accompany the book, including Nature and Living Beings, Birds’ Homes, and Birds and Climate. Then they trained eight teachers from three Mexican states (Oaxaca, Chiapas, and Guerrero) to include the book in their curriculum. A year later, Pronatura trained 28 more teachers. By 2017, they had trained 66 teachers from 40 schools, half of which were located in Chiapas’ Indigenous communities.
Bringing Chipilo into the classroom has sometimes been challenging, says teacher Mario Alberto Pérez Ruiz, native Tsotsil speaker. Chiapas remains one the poorest states in Mexico—76 percent of its population lives in poverty—and some of his colleagues worked in schools that lacked basic supplies like paper, scissors, and colored pencils. Pérez has worked hard to incorporate the lessons into his curriculum at a school near San Cristóbal de las Casas. He first started teaching about Chipilo in 2015, when he was one of two teachers in Pueblo de Israel, a Tsotsil village of 200 people. There his fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-grade students built a nest and learned geography following the bird’s migration path. In other schools, students created radio programs recounting the dangers that birds like Chipilo face, wrote and performed plays and songs like the one that made Azuara cry, and installed native-plant gardens on their school grounds.
Despite their success, Macías and her colleagues at Pronatura felt they could do more. The book was mostly being taught at bicultural and bilingual schools, but it was written in Spanish. These schools exist to strengthen Indigenous languages, but they fall short on that promise. “They are a big joke,” says Martínez, the linguistic anthropologist. When the Secretary of Education assigns teachers to schools, there’s seemingly no effort to place them in areas where they speak the native language, she explains. While the hundreds of Indigenous languages and variations spoken in Mexico all come from ancient Mayan, they’re as different from each other as Spanish is from Italian or French. So a teacher who speaks Tsotsil, for example, can end up in a school where children speak Tojolabal. As a result, in the classroom they default to their common language: Spanish.
So they contacted writer Juan Benito de la Torre López, a native Tsotsil speaker. De la Torre and his daughter Ana Guadalupe de la Torre Sánchez translated the children’s book to Tsotsil over four months. Some of the work was straightforward—the Tsotsil already have a name for the Golden-cheeked Warbler, for instance: K’anal ton sat Chipe. But in many instances they were starting from scratch. “It was very fun, but also very hard,” he says. “We had to come up with new terms quite often.” The Tsotsil people, for example, have only two seasons: vo’tik, the time of rain (April to October), and korixmatik, the time of lent (October to March). So they had to create names for the four seasons mentioned in the book: spring is Chk’ exp’uj yanal te’, the time when all the hills start to turn green; summer is Ch-och vo’tik, when the rainy season arrives; fall is Chlok’ vo’tik, end of the rainy season; and winter is Yora siktik, the coldest of times.
Once the translation,Slo’il xch’iel Chipilo Crisopario, was finished, in 2018, it immediately hit a hurdle. “Teachers didn’t want to read the book in front of the children,” Azuara says. “They were ashamed they would make a mistake.” This insecurity is directly related to the racist policies that relegated Tsotsil and other Mayan languages to non-public places. The more than 500,000 Tsotsil speakers have kept the language alive by speaking it with family and friends, but there is no written tradition, says Martínez. It was only in the late 1990s when Tsotsil-speaking professionals and writers first established the writing rules for Tsotsil using the Latin alphabet. Today even if people can speak it, many don’t know how to read it or read it confidently. Bilingual education specialists suggested recording the text as an audiobook. “That way, teachers wouldn’t feel insecure in the classroom,” Azuara says.
She convinced Floriana de la Torre, the translator’s oldest daughter, to record herself reading the Tsotsil version. De la Torre recorded herself over and over again from May to August. Now the recording is ready, but COVID-19 has stalled its dispersal: Schools are closed, and for most students attending virtual classrooms isn’t an option. Only 61 percent of Tzotzil localities have internet access, and of those only 22 percent have access to a 4G network (the technology needed to have effective group calls or video meetings, for example), according to government data.
Azuara and Macías are exploring other routes to deliver Chipilo to Indigenous students in Chiapas—and beyond. They’re considering distributing the audiobook to teachers via USBs, and have shared the recording on social media. They’ve discussed having a Tsotsil radio station broadcast the audiobook. One day, they would potentially translate the text into other Mayan languages spoken by communities throughout the rest of the Golden-cheeked Warbler’s range. In the coming years the story of one tiny warbler could spread across its 10,319-square-mile forest habitat, teaching children about the importance of saving its habitat while simultaneously helping to lift up their native languages. “This little bird is incredible,” says Azuara.
“It has made us fly.”