Mississippi’s diverse natural environment provides habitat for an abundance of birdlife. The state’s central geographical location, with the Mississippi River on the west and the Gulf of Mexico to the south, attracts a great number of seasonal visitors as well as occasional vagrants from the western states and the Caribbean. In the fall, the so-called Mississippi Flyway gathers migrating birds from a vast area in the northern United States and Canada and funnels them along the Lower Mississippi River onto their wintering grounds in the southern United States and Latin America. Several species of birds cover much of this great flyway twice every year. Well-watered, with forested bottomland areas, and uninterrupted by mountain ranges, the Mississippi Flyway is one of the four main migration routes for North American birds and of utmost importance for many Arctic species of geese, ducks, and shorebirds.
Altogether some four hundred species of birds from fifty different families have been observed in Mississippi. While no full bird species are endemic to Mississippi, the state serves as breeding ground for many rare birds, among them the brown pelican, bald eagle, Swainson’s warbler, and Bachman’s sparrow. A true state specialty is the Mississippi sandhill crane, a nonmigratory subspecies of the sandhill crane, with its sole population found in a small area of the Pascagoula watershed in Jackson County.
While much of Mississippi’s woodlands have been heavily modified for the purposes of agriculture and commercial tree growing, forests still dominate the state’s landscape. Different forest types support different species of birds. The most abundant and diverse bird populations are typically found in the remaining hardwood forests of the Delta and Loess Bluffs, but pine forests also support distinctive fauna. Found only in the southern United States, the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker depends on fire-sustained, open pine forest for habitat and cannot survive in contemporary, young, and heavily managed pine plantations.
Some species of birds today considered critically endangered or even extinct previously numbered among Mississippi’s wildlife, including the passenger pigeon, Carolina parakeet, Bachman’s warbler, and ivory-billed woodpecker. The disappearance of these species can often be traced to persecution and the destruction of their habitat by humans. Many Mississippi birds continue to experience population declines because of the loss of forest habitat on both their breeding and wintering grounds, while severely disturbed beach and coastal habitat has been cited as a major problem for species such as the least tern and piping and snowy plovers. The Mississippi sandhill crane and wood stork have suffered greatly from the draining of southern wetlands, which has destroyed much of their feeding grounds and preferred habitat.
Early settlers in Mississippi as well as Native Americans were intimately familiar with many birds and their habits, but the scientific study of the birds found in the state remains a rather recent phenomenon. While such great American naturalists as William Bartram, Alexander Wilson, and John James Audubon visited the Mississippi region in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, systematic study of the state’s birds really began only during the twentieth century. The Mississippi Ornithological Society was founded in 1955 and has published its bulletin, The Mississippi Kite, since 1965.
Recreational observation and study of birds—“bird-watching” or “birding”—have become an increasingly popular pastime in the United States, and Mississippi is no exception. Several birders’ organizations are now active in the state, including chapters of the National Audubon Society. Chapter members typically participate in breeding bird surveys and the traditional Christmas Bird Count. Mississippi’s public lands offer excellent birding opportunities. For example, the state’s numerous national wildlife refuges feature nature trails that offer easy access to prime bird habitat and usually provide a seasonal species checklist for the serious birder. While the greatest abundance and variety of bird species are encountered in such protected areas, it is possible to observe many birds even without leaving one’s home, especially if bird feeders and nest boxes have been placed on the property. Species such as Mississippi’s state bird, the mockingbird, as well as the mourning dove, American robin, blue jay, Carolina wren, northern cardinal, and numerous others can also be encountered in habitats significantly altered by humans.
- Audubon Mississippi website, www.ms.audubon.org
- Mississippi Ornithological Society website, www.missbird.org
- David Allen Sibley, The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America (2003)
- William H. Turcotte and David L. Watts, Birds of Mississippi (1999)