The Birds Are Back In Town: Spring Migration Underway In The Mountain West

Mar 31, 2021
Originally published on March 31, 2021 9:15 pm

Parts of the Mountain West are still seeing snow and frost and sleet – but there's one sure sign that spring is actually here: the songs of migrating birds. 


"If you don't sing really well, you might not get a female," said Terry Rich. 

Rich is based in Boise, Idaho, and he's been birdwatching most of his life. 

He started "probably around 1962 when I was in junior high," he said. "Still learning, I'll tell you that."

Rich was a leader in bird conservation with the federal government for decades. He started with the Bureau of Land Management and later coordinated with the international group Partners in Flight for the Fish and Wildlife Service.

"So that was birds, 24/7 birds," he said. 

Now he's mostly retired – but that doesn't mean he's done birdwatching.

"There's always the possibility that you'll see something that you didn't expect. So it's always, it's always a treasure hunt," he said. 

Rich said the spring migration in the Mountain West is unique for a few reasons. For one, there's not a central body of water for birds to follow, like the coastlines or the Mississippi River. So birds spread out. But there are streams and lakes and wetlands, which he says become their "oasis."

"If there's some bird in the vicinity, it's probably going to stop there to rest or to get water, to find some food," he said. 

He said some birders will "drive through 20 miles of sagebrush and then stop at the first creek they see and check out the willows, because that's probably where you're going to get most birds."

There's also a lot of different elevations in the region. Rich says you can find different species just by driving up a mountain, "so it's easy to transition without driving a great distance." 

Before you see a bird, though, you might hear it. For Rich, his favorite migratory bird song is from the yellow-breasted chat. 

"They do a lot of funny clucks and whistles. And so if you just listen to them for a while ... it's like they're messing with you," he said chuckling. 

The yellow-breasted chat is not just Rich's favorite, though. Wildlife biologist Kathy Granillo in New Mexico loves it, too.

"They're beautiful, lots of yellow, black, white. And they have one of the craziest songs that you'll ever hear," she said. 

Colin Wooley in Colorado is a banding coordinator with the Bird Conservancy of the Rockies. He also enjoys the chat. 

"It's a very strange bird," he said, smiling. 

You can give it a listen here

But birder Don Jones in Laramie, Wyo., isn't as big of a fan.

"If you're trying to train somebody to learn the bird songs of the area, the chats can actually be a nightmare because they make so many weird noises," he said.

Jones works with the Wyoming Natural Diversity Database at the University of Wyoming. He prefers the song of the hermit thrush.

"It's pretty neat to listen to a bird like the hermit thrush singing in the summer at Happy Jack or in the Snowy Range, and think that that bird is equally well adapted to spending the winter foraging around in the rainforest with jaguars and monkeys and things like that," Jones said.

He loves the idea that for part of the year, people half a world away see these same birds. 

"You know, we think of them as being our birds, but in reality, they spend more of the year in a tropical rainforest in Costa Rica or Ecuador than they do in Wyoming," he said.

Birds like the chat and the thrush are nice to listen to, but according to scientific research, their songs might even be good for your mental health. A recent aggregation of research found that birdsongs in nature reduce people's stress and annoyance. 

And if all this information about birding has you interested in giving it a try, Terry Rich in Boise suggests going to a place nearby where birds are, and enjoy.

"Don't worry so much about trying to identify everything or get bummed out because you can't tell what it is. Just start by just enjoying what you see," he said. 

From there, possibly go out with someone knowledgeable, like an audubon group or a birder like him.

"I always hope ultimately people will then move a little bit into conservation and do some things that will help birds. But I think you just start by enjoying it," he said. 

There are some things you can do to help migrating birds, like keeping cats inside and turning off outside lights at night. You can even log birds you see on the eBird app, so you can keep track while also helping conservationists. 

That's what Rich does, especially when he sees something exciting.

"It's the first swallow of the year," Rich said, whipping out his binoculars to get a closer look. "The first swallow I've seen this year – right there is a Northern Rough-Winged Swallow, just one." 

He smiled as he watched it fly overhead.

"It's migration! You never know," he said, laughing. "Every day is something different."

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Copyright 2021 Boise State Public Radio News. To see more, visit Boise State Public Radio News.