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Snow Birds

As seasons change and temperatures drop, many animals prepare for the holidays by bulking up and hunkering down or migrating to warmer weather - and humans are no exception! Migration can be thousands of miles as animals travel from higher to lower latitudes and vice versa, or it can be shorter trips in altitudinal migration as they descend from mountain tops to low valleys to avoid the worst of winter's cold. For some, winter in Arizona is considered warmer weather, like the Canada goose (Branta canadensis) and other 'snowbirds' that breed as far north as the High Arctic.

Southern Arizona is known for hosting hundreds of resident bird species, as well as winter visitors. We have a mix of travelers, like the Sandhill cranes (Grus canadensis) and various waterfowl who visit wetlands like Whitewater Draw, as well as songbirds who move their way down from high elevations in the Sky Islands to lower grasslands, desert scrub, and precious riparian areas throughout the valley floors.

Thousands of Sandhill cranes and a flock of Snow geese gather at Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area in Southeastern Arizona.
Thousands of Sandhill cranes and a flock of Snow geese gather at Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area in Southeastern Arizona.

Most neotropical species whose northern range extends ever-so-slightly into Southern Arizona, like the Elegant Trogon (Trogon elegans), will leave and winter in Central or South America. The Elegant Trogon is a short-distance migrant with most of its range in Central America, where many populations stay year-round. Some will migrate to the borderlands region to breed, and a few rare resident birds can be seen throughout the year in the Santa Rita and Chiricahua mountain ranges.

Arizona is known for its excellent birding opportunities, which are accurate year-round. As winter migration starts in December, birds fly in and out of the state like planes out of Sky Harbor International Airport. The annual Christmas Bird Count takes place all over the country, and the San Pedro Valley regularly has one of the highest inland species counts in the country, with over 150 species recorded within a few weeks. 

We have a lot in common with birds, especially during the winter: we build warm, cozy houses, gift each other shiny objects, and sing beautiful carols - some of us even migrate. Birds may not be celebrating any special holidays this time of year like we are, but I like to think they celebrate each day all the same.

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