They come quietly in the night, announcing their arrival at daybreak by filling the woods with their songs.

They come quietly in the night, announcing their arrival at daybreak by filling the woods with their songs.

Wearing their gaudy breeding plumage and singing their loudest to mark territories and attract a mate, the songbirds are among the millions of ducks, geese, swans, cranes, pelicans and other birds that take part in North America’s greatest wildlife migration.

Flying from as far away as South America — some travel nonstop over the Gulf of Mexico — they begin arriving in early spring, and continue in waves throughout May into early summer.

Missouri is in the middle of two of the four major flyways that cross the continent. Many of the birds travel north on the Mississippi Flyway; some detour west on the Central Flyway that follows the Missouri River to the Great Plains.

They may rest and refuel for a while in Missouri before continuing their arduous journey north to as far as Canada. Some will stay in Missouri and build nests, joining the year-round residents.

Missouri State Parks, especially those on lakes or along rivers, act like magnets to draw the birds. To a weary bird in flight, the parks are a green oasis amid the agricultural fields and urban sprawl below. Some parks have been designated “Important Bird Areas” by the Audubon Society and act like rest stops on an interstate for a migrating bird.

Sam A. Baker State Park, near Patterson in southeast Missouri, has “Birds Over Baker” on May 31, a free event to teach the public about birds.

The Audubon Society of Missouri and Missouri State Parks, a division of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, have created a website where volunteers list the birds they see in state parks and conservation areas. At, data for state parks is listed at the SPARKS icon.

“We’re looking for what birds are seen, where and when,” said Edge Wade, a self-described Audubon “birding bum” who helped set up the website. “Our parks are particularly good places to see them.”

The data is valuable to researchers, who may want to track the past and future numbers of a particular species. For land managers, they can see which birds are present, and which aren’t, and make habitat decisions. And for birders, they can see where they might find a special species.

“For example, the data base shows 59 reports for winter wren in Rock Bridge Memorial State Park in late March and early April,” Wade said. “It’ll be right there on the creek near the parking lot, usually.”

 Asked for her favorite birding parks, Wade listed Rock Bridge Memorial State Park, near her home in Columbia, and Roaring River, Trail of Tears, Van Meter, Meramec and Johnson’s Shut-Ins state parks.

“I’ve been to all of them,” she said. “Most of our parks are just pretty doggone good.”


Prescribed Burns Mean More Birds

Management practices by Missouri State Parks have made park landscapes more attractive to birds.

Prescribed burns help maintain healthy ecosystems and encourage the return of native grasses and wildflowers, said Allison Vaughn, a natural resource steward with the Missouri Department of Natural Resources.

“We’ve now had fire on the ground in state parks for 31 years,” she said.

Vaughn pointed to the research done by Terry Callahan, a researcher at the University of Missouri at Columbia. In the 1990s, he surveyed bird populations in woodlands that had been burned and compared the populations to woodlands that had not been burned.

“He found that bird populations not only increased in species numbers, but also in abundance of birds in the burned areas,” Vaughn said.

For three years, Vaughn replicated Callahan’s work at Ha Ha Tonka State Park, and got the same results – birds increased in species and numbers in burned areas compared to unburned areas.

“Part of the reason for that is, whenever a prescribed burn is used in quality woodlands, plants that produce seeds and attract insects are stimulated – the food sources that birds depend on,” Vaughn said. “Nesting materials for many species of birds also are abundant in burned woodlands.”

Fire defines the quality of the woods, Vaughn said, creating light to the woodland floor beneath widely spaced trees with a distinct shrub layer.


Every Color in the Rainbow

“Birds Over Baker” at Sam A. Baker State Park begins at 9 a.m. on May 31 with a guided bird hike. It ends at 7 p.m. with a raptor awareness program in which handlers from the World Bird Sanctuary in St. Louis will talk about hawks, owls and other raptors while real birds fly over the heads of the audience in the park’s amphitheater.