Outdoors Column: Where Have all the Birds Gone?

We all know that many of our Midwestern birds migrate south during the winter. I was just never sure, where in the south they went. This week, I found out. They all go to Houston, Texas.


My wife and I decided to take a trip to Houston to visit our son who lives there. Houston is a very large metropolitan area with a surprising amount of green space. New housing developments have sprung up with planning for wildlife. New ponds and lakes are built into these new communities with large parks connected by native trees and prairie areas. We saw a surprising number of birds in these areas. There are native birds and ducks, but huge flocks have migrated from the north to enjoy the warm winter weather. I must say, I can not blame them at all. While we were in Texas, Iowa had snow, ice, and cold. Texas weather was mostly sunny with temperatures in the 60’s and 70’s. If I could fly south every winter like the birds, I would, too.


We stopped at a grocery store one late afternoon. A small tree in the parking lot was the chosen roosting place for several hundred purple grackles. Branches were sagging from the weight of all the birds. The ones that would not fit in the tree were milling about on the ground under it. It would have been possible to do a re-make of the old Alfred Hitchcock movie, “The Birds” without calling in any extras.


Walking through the parks, the snowy egrets and great blue herons stalk the shores hunting frogs and small fish. A few months ago, these same birds were doing the same hunting at our place, which is currently frozen from shore to shore. Fortunately, instinct has told them to get out while the getting was good. They are now enjoying leisurely days of soaking up the sun in warm weather while catching an occasional tasty snack.


Ducks that have migrated as far south as Houston show a lot of wisdom. There is no hunting allowed in the lakes and ponds in residential areas. Most ducks and geese have yet to figure this out. In many areas of the south, hunting migratory waterfowl is as big or bigger than pheasant and quail seasons are for us in the north. Much of East Texas and Louisiana is flat and covered with rice or soybeans. Millions of ducks and geese, from Canada all the way to the Midwest, concentrate in these fields, providing great hunting opportunities. Bag limits are strictly controlled allowing this continue for generations to come.


Several years ago, we came south with for the specific purpose of duck hunting. We went out with a guide to hunt at the edge of a rice field. Our guide, Bart, rolled us out of bed well before daylight, saying it was going to be a great day of duck hunting. The weather was such that only a duck would love. Rain was pouring down as we made our way along a levee, pausing only briefly to get myself out of a trench blind I fell into in the darkness. When dawn broke, ducks were coming and going like the traffic in Houston. We bagged our limit within an hour or so. It was great fun watching the dog swimming across the flooded field, retrieving our birds. Later in the day, several were turned into gumbo, which was delicious.


I doubt hunting will ever be allowed in the parks of Houston, so as years go by, more ducks and other birds will migrate to the safety of the residential areas. People walk the parks and trails, observing both the native species and the everything that has migrated. It is a great opportunity to see where the birds go in the winter.