May 12, 2023 - News

Houston's critical job as a stopover point for migratory birds

Photo: Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

World Migratory Bird Day is Saturday, and Houston is at a special intersection where millions of birds pass through the city during the height of migration season in May.

Driving the news: Houston is essentially the resting spot for migratory birds coming from the Gulf during spring migration.

  • Birds come to Houston after a 17-hour nonstop flight from Latin America and then rest and refuel before continuing their journey north, Ben Jones, senior director of wildlife conservation at the Houston Zoo, tells Axios.

Why it matters: Since Houston is a critical stopover point, Jones urges Houstonians to participate in the Lights Out, Texas campaign by turning off their nonessential lights from 11pm to 6am and closing curtains and blinds during migration season.

  • Spring migration season started in March and ends around June 15, with the peak season being in May, per conservation group Audubon Texas.

Catch up quick: Building collisions due to artificial lighting are one of the largest threats to birds, killing between 100 million and 1 billion birds annually in the U.S.

  • Flashback: The Lights Out effort launched in 2017 by Houston Audubon and American National Insurance Co. after 400 birds died in a major collision event in Galveston during a storm.

Between the lines: Most birds migrate at night, and the lights attract the birds from their high elevations, Jones says.

  • "Birds are attracted to light kind of like a moth to flame. And light can be a sensory pollutant," he says. "There are not many terrestrial forms of natural light. … So when we transform the landscape with all of our lighting, our streetlights, our city lights or all of that, it's really something that the bird brain and its adaptations are not used to. And so it confuses them during their migration."

The bottom line: "Migration is so extraordinary. When we're laying down in bed, many nights … hundreds of thousands and millions of birds are soaring over us and the night sky like a superhighway of birds," Jones says.

  • "We have a great migration happening right here in our own hometown. If you're lucky enough to see some of the most amazing birds coming through, it's a special treat."

Unique birds to spot

Since Houston is a pit stop thousands of birds fly through during migration season, there's an opportunity to spot some unique birds.

By the numbers: Jones says approximately 570 types of birds have been spotted in Houston, some of which are permanent residents and some of which are migratory.

Of note: Because of its prime location, Houston has a large bird-watching community. Some of the main places for watching include High Island on a tall salt dome on Bolivar Peninsula and the entire Galveston region.

  • Yes, but: Migratory birds can be found all throughout the city near trees, especially near the bayous and parks.

Here are some of Jones' favorite birds to look out for.

Painted bunting

Photo of a rainbow bird.
Photo: DeAgostini/Getty Images

Indigo bunting

Photo of a blue bird.
Photo: Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Purple gallinule

Photo of a purple bird
An American purple gallinule. Photo: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Scissor-tailed flycatcher

Photo of a gray-white bird with long tail.
Photo: Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images


Photo of a yellow-green bird.
Pine warbler. Photo courtesy of Houston Zoo


Photo of a red bird.
Photo: Arterra/Philippe Clément/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Go deeper: A new app helps birders identify their feathered friends.


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