By Cassandra Johnson
With spring time comes tourists returning during the warm season. As much as I love to see families enjoying Main Street, the visitors I most look forward to are actually the thousands of birds who stop by. Many of us enjoy seeing new birds at our feeders, like tiny warblers and Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, Blue Grosbeaks, and even Scarlet Tanagers.
More than a hundred species of birds migrate through and to our region every spring, and though we all enjoy seeing the new addition to our feeder or on a walk, watching these birds has a rich history in our community. Did you know that International Migratory Bird Day is celebrated every year on the second Saturday of May? This holiday is celebrated all throughout North and South America, and North Carolina is certainly no exception.
This region is important to migrating birds during both the spring and fall. During the spring, thousands of birds leave their winter homes, ranging from South America all the way up to the far southern states of the US, and head north, hoping to find plenty of food and a good nesting spot. During their fall migration, we see other types of birds migrating from the north to find warmer weather during the cool seasons.
These birds come through this region for many reasons. We are a part of a long-known migration route for many birds, and some use the mountains to help navigate. The mountains and waterways also provide lots of food and nesting opportunities, and even events such as storms bring them through the area.
The movements of these birds have been noted for hundreds of years in this region. More than 350 years ago, the Saura tribe was known to hunt migrating birds for food, tools, and to wear. Some of those birds you can still see today, such as Thrush (Swainson’s and Wood are both still popular here) or maybe even a Snow Goose if you are very lucky nowadays. Not all of the birds they would have observed are still around today, though, with the infamous passenger pigeon being the prime example.
Early European settlers also observed and hunted migrating birds, more than 250 years ago. Moravian settlers were recorded as being especially fascinated with “exotic” migrants such as the Whippoorwills, which “calls only at night;” a fascination many of us here still share. They also relied on migrating birds as a food source, such as wild geese and the passenger pigeon. They would go from hunting these passenger pigeons by the thousands each winter to witnessing their extinction. In the fall of 1760, men in Wachovia hunted 1,200-1,800 pigeons in a single hunt one night. Here in Surry County in 1842, a flock roosting over four square miles stayed 17 nights. By the late 1800s, they would be gone from North Carolina. By 1914, the last passenger pigeon, which was kept in the Cincinnati zoo, died and the species was gone forever.
Modern groups would soon follow in the footsteps of past bird migration observers, but with the hope of conserving species rather than for hunting. In 1902, the Audubon Society of North Carolina was founded, and during this time, bird watching became a popular hobby as concern for losing species grew. Soon after, with the construction of the Blue Ridge Parkway here and a rising interest in parks, the Carolina Bird Club was founded in 1937. This initial club had members from all over the state, including Winston-Salem and surrounding communities, and they were dedicated to studying and conserving birds.
Bird watching is still a beloved hobby in this region, and the number of groups and opportunities has only grown. One of our most prominent groups is the Forsythe chapter of the Audubon Society, and they notably do migrating hawk counts every fall throughout the region, but the Pilot Mountain watch is a personal favorite. Every year, starting in September, counters will be out at Pilot, counting migrating hawks and birds of prey as they fly south. A few rare finds, such as Northern Harriers, have been seen, but broad-winged hawks are what we get the most of. Every year, thousands of these birds pass by Pilot, and with the local record being more than 10,000 passing by in a single day in 1993.
For centuries, the people of Surry County and the surrounding communities have watched these birds as they migrate through. Over the years, the intent has changed from hunting for nutrition to watching and conservation, but one thing hasn’t changed — we are simply fascinated with them. So, set up a backyard feeder or get out to a local park this spring (and fall) because you never know what new bird could be visiting.
Cassandra Johnson is the director of programs and education at the Mount Airy Museum of Regional History. She has been an avid bird-watcher for more than 10 years.