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Spring Migratory Birds in High Park

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by Emma Nakahara

This article is all about spring migratory birds that call High Park home. This article will be updated over time to include more information and feature more spring migratory birds in High Park.

Spring Migration in High Park 

The height of bird migration at High Park happens during the spring season. Each year, more than 50 million spring migratory birds pass through Toronto, many of them through High Park. Some stick around until the winter, while others use it as a stopping point on their journey further north. Depending on winter weather, some spring migratory birds might also stick around all through the winter season.

This article features some of the most common species of spring migratory birds you can find in High Park.

A male Red-winged Blackbird sitting on a branch making one of its distinctive calls.
Male Red-winged Blackbird. Credit: High Park Nature Centre
Female Red-winged Blackbird; Credit: High Park Nature Centre

Scientific name: Agelaius phoeniceus
Habitat in High Park: Primarily near wetland marshes
Sightings in High Park: Very common
Conservation status in Ontario: Secure

The arrival of Red-winged Blackbirds in High Park is among the very first signs of the start the spring season. Their distinctive appearance, sheer numbers, and loud calls that drown out any other bird calls make them hard to miss in High Park.

Male Red-winged Blackbirds are easily recognizable. Black with reddish-orange and yellow patches on their shoulder, they sing their exclamatory conk-la-ree song and display themselves from perches during the breeding season. Males are very territorial during this season, defending against other males as well as possible predators.

Red-winged Blackbirds are sexually dimporhic — meaning the male and female species display different physical characteristics and appearances. Females look completely different from their male counterparts with a streaky brown colouration similar to those of a house sparrow. Female birds can be found gathering food and nest material among ground vegetation. Several females often make their nests in one male’s territory, placing them among low, dense vertical vegetation.

The Red-winged Blackbird’s typical call is a short check, although they also have a fast chak-chak-chak alarm call. They use their conical bill for eating insects in summer, and eating the seeds of weed-like plants, waste grains, and native sunflowers in fall and winter.

To learn more visit The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s website.

Male Wood Duck; Credit: High Park Nature Centre
Female Wood Duck; Credit: High Park Nature Centre

Scientific name: Aix sponsa
Habitat in High Park: Grenadier Pond and eastern wetlands
Sightings in High Park: Very common
Conservation status in Ontario: Secure

With their beautiful feathers and habit of perching on the branches of trees, Wood Ducks are always a welcome sight in High Park each spring.

Males are iridescent, with green, crested heads and complex patterns on their feathers. Females are soft grey and brown, with slightly crested heads and white rings around their eyes. They also have a blue patch on their wings, followed by a white band.

Wood Ducks prefer to stay near woods, and can be found in swamps, wetlands, and water bodies. They nest in trees, repurposing natural or pre-created cavities for their nests, and therefore willingly use artificial nest boxes. Soon after hatching, the young jump down from their nests (which can be quite high up) to join their mother. Wood Ducks mainly eat vegetation but may also eat insects and other arthropods. 

To learn more visit The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s website.

Don't feed wild animals

You might be tempted to feed wildlife in High Park. However, feeding them can have serious impacts to both animals and the community:

  • Human food is very unhealthy for wild animals.
  • It conditions them to aggressively expect food from people, putting people and animals at risk.
  • Wild animals are skilled foragers and hunters and can find healthy sources of food on their own.
  • It is prohibited under the City of Toronto’s bylaws to feed and disturb wild animals.
A female Northern Flicker with light brown and grey plummage, a red patch on its head and black bib-like patch on its chest, sits on a tree.
Male Northern Flicker; Credit: High Park Nature Centre
A female Northern Flicker with light brown and grey plummage, a red path on its head and black bib-like patch on its chest, sits on a tree.
Female Northern Flicker; Credit: High Park Nature Centre

Scientific name: Colaptes auratus
Habitat in High Park: Open woodlands
Sightings in High Park: Common
Conservation status in Ontario: Secure

Say hello to Toronto’s “unofficial bird” the Northern Flicker! One of their popular sounds is their fast  wik-a-wik-a-wik-a-wik-a call. Unlike most woodpeckers, they search on the ground for their prey, which is often ants. They will eat other invertebrates as well though, and even fruits in late fall and winter.

Their lovely colours — barred and spotted patterns on a black and brown background, with a white rump and yellow linings on their wings — make them easily identifiable. While male birds have a dark patch on their cheek, females don’t. The Northern Flicker lives in a variety of habitats, and creates a new nesting hole every year. These nesting holes often serve as the home for another species the next year.

To learn more visit the City of Toronto’s Birds of Toronto – Biodiversity handbook or The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s website.

A male Brown-headed Cowbird with a dark brown head and black body plummage stands on some green grass.
Male Brown-headed Cowbird; Credit: High Park Nature Centre
A female Brown-headed Cowbird with light brown plummage stands on some green grass.
Female Brown-headed Cowbird; Credit: Andrew Yee

Scientific name: Molothrus ater
Habitat in High Park: Grasslands
Sightings in High Park: Moderately common
Conservation status in Ontario: Secure

Brown-headed Cowbirds are notorious for how they raise their young. Or rather, how they get other birds to raise their young. Females produce many eggs in a year, but place all of them in other birds’ nests for them to raise—most hosts will never notice.

Found in moderately open areas like residential areas and brushy thickets, cowbirds are stocky and have a thick conical bill. They forage on the ground, mostly for seeds and some insects, but females will also eat snail shells and sometimes an egg from a host’s nest to supplement their calcium. Males are black with a brown head, and have a gurgling song, while females are a light brown and have a chattering song.

To learn more visit The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s website.

Keep your dog on a leash

High Park is a vital resting ground for migratory birds and ground-nesting animals. Here’s how you can protect them, yourself, your dog and others:

  • Familiarize yourself with off-leash areas.
  • Keep your dog on a leash, unless in off-leash areas, even if you see other dogs off leash.
  • Stay on park trails, out of restoration areas, and don’t trample on sensitive vegetation.

It is against City of Toronto bylaws to have your dog off leash in undesignated areas.

A common grackle's black iridescent plummage shines in the sunlight while it sits on a tree branch in High Park.
Common Grackle; Credit: High Park Nature Centre
A common grackle with black iridescent plummage holds food in its beak while sitting on a tree branch in High Park.
Common Grackle; Credit: High Park Nature Centre

Scientific name: Quiscalus quiscula
Habitat in High Park: Open woodlands
Sightings in High Park: Common
Conservation status in Ontario: Secure

The Common Grackle has a strange way of cleaning itself—by “anting”. That is, letting ants crawl over it so that the formic acid in their stings removes parasites and dead feathers.

Grackles can be found foraging in open areas, but they prefer sparsely forested areas for their nests. Their sharp call has been compared to a rusty hinge, and they can also mimic other birds and even human sounds.

The Grackle is relatively long for a blackbird, and males have bronzy bodies and iridescent blue heads. Females are thinner and less glossy than their male counterparts.

To learn more visit The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s website.

A male Baltimore Oriole with black and orange plummage sits on a tree branch.
Male Baltimore Oriole; Credit: High Park Nature Centre
A female Baltimore Oriole with yellow and brown plummage sits on the stem of a reed.
Female Baltimore Oriole; Credit: Patrice Bouchard via Unsplash

Scientific name: Icterus galbula
Habitat in High Park: Open woodlands
Sighting occurence: Moderately common
Conservation status in Ontario: Apparently Secure

Each cherry blossom season, birders and nature photographers long for a lovely shot of these brightly coloured spring migratory birds among High Park’s cherry blossom flowers — making them one of the most sought after bird sightings during the season.

The Baltimore Oriole is a small bird, but males have a striking colour combination of orange and black, with white stripes on their wings. Females are yellow and grey. They both have a unique chattering call, and prefer less densely forested areas and riverbanks, and may forage among shrubbery.

These acrobatic birds only defend near their nests, rather than feeding territories, and so multiple may be found feeding in the same area. From mid-spring to the end of summer, they will eat insects, but near migrating times they prefer nectar and fruits, like those found among High Park’s cherry blossom trees.

To learn more visit The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s website.

Stay off the cherry blossoms

Plucking and touching the cherry blossoms, climbing on or leaning against trees, and breaking or tugging on branches not only damage the blossoms, but also frighten away wildlife that rely on them for food and shelter. Imagine the sheer number of visitors in High Park, and you’ll realize it adds up to a lot of damaged blossoms and trees. On your next visit to High Park, spare a thought for these birds and be kind to them and the trees by not touching and damaging them!

A male Baltimore Oriole with black and orange plummage sits on the branch of a cherry blossom tree eating the nectar from pink cherry blossom flowers.
A Scarelet Tanager with red and black plummage sits on a tree branch.
Male Scarlet Tanager; Credit: Patrice Bouchard via Unsplash
A female Scarlet Tanager wth yellow plummage sits on a tree branch.
Female Scarlet Tanager; Credit: Matt Osbourne via Wikimedia Commons; CC BY-SA 4.0

Scientific name: Icterus galbula
Habitat in High Park: Tall trees in the Black Oak Savannah
Sighting occurence: Very rare
Conservation status in Ontario: Secure

You’ll need a handy pair of binoculars and a pinch of patience to spot these elusive birds in High Park. They can be quite hard to spot as they prefer to stay high up in the tree canopies of the Black Oak Savannah. It is more likely that you will hear their chick-burr call than see them.

The Scarlet Tanager is a voracious insect eater. The males are well-known for their vivid red bodies and black wings and tails, while the females are yellow-green with darkened wings.

They mostly eat insects, but also some fruits and soft buds. When looking for their insect prey, they walk along branches or up trunks and perch or hover to pick them off, or else they snatch flying insects from the air.

To learn more visit The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s website.

Birds of the City online course

Do you wish to be a better birder, but are not quite sure where to begin? Check out our Birds of the City online naturalist course and get started on your journey to becoming a better naturalist and birder! From tails to talons, we cover it all in this course. Learn more about their adaptations, threats, and behaviours, and practice identifying common species found in the urban environments in southern Ontario at your own pace from the comfort of your home!

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