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The Varieties of Migration Experience

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One of my earliest memories of experiencing the wonder of migration was when I was eighteen years old, abd standing on a beach by myself. I was looking out at the Pacific Ocean watching thousands of birds fly along the horizon. I watched for over an hour as the birds stitched the

water to the sky as they flew in a single line. I had never seen anything like this before and many years later I realized that I had seen shearwaters in migration.

Migration is the perfect vehicle to explore the study of birds. Through migration we become aware of navigational skills, aerodynamic feats, logistics of speciation, the competition with humans for resources and many other factors.

It is a study of the unique nature of each species. The female Yellow-bellied Sapsucker migrates further south than the male; in some pelagic species the young are born with genetic maps, and other species have a window of time that they learn the stars in the sky that they will use to migrate. We learn of remarkable navigation skills such as the shearwaters that are taken from their nest by well-meaning researchers and flown to places that they as a species have never visited, and yet they find their way home.

It is a study of how birds utilize different habitats for different seasons. The Common Loon feeds

in the ocean during the winter and migrates east and raises its young in fresh water. The Long-billed Curlew uses its long legs to feed along the shore during the winter and during the spring

uses its legs to help it hunt in the tall grass prairie.

It is a study of how birds know. Some species operate with innate knowledge, others with learned knowledge, and others with knowledge that is the combination of innate knowledge improved with what the bird learns from experience. Some species of ducks learn about migration from their parents; others don't. The young of the Long-billed Dowitcher migrates two weeks earlier than their parents.

It is a study of politics as some people try to save land and others try to profit from it. On the outer banks of Alabama there is a struggle to hold on to the land so that thousands of migrating birds flying over the Gulf of Mexico can have a place to land and feed when they need it most; but other people want to take the land and make it into vacation homes.

It is a study of speciation as we watch the varieties of migration for the different races of White-crowned Sparrows. In California it is difficult to make a blanket statement about whether or not

the White-crowned Sparrow migrates.A couple of the races do and a couple of the races don't. And at least one race moves from a lower altitude in California, to a higher location in the same state to breed.

It is a study of humans trying to understand their responsibility as they participate in the natural heritage. John James Audubon witnessed and recorded the killing of 25,000 Golden Plovers by a small set of hunters in a single day.

We have created a refuge system to support the population of Snow Geese and now their population has exceeded the carrying capacity of the tundra where they breed. It is estimated that here are now two million excess Snow Geese.

It is a study of the citizen birder who gathers data of the arrival and departure dates of individual species and contributes that data to the researchers so they can continue their work. The citizen birder also participates when they become a licensed bird-bander or assists a bird-bander and participates in gathering data on migration.

Most of the wetlands are gone. Most of the prairie is gone. Most of the forests are gone. We have taken the land that supports migration and enables breeding.

Not only are we changing the climate which is upsetting the synchronicity between migrating birds and their food items, but we are eliminating migration and replacing it with Canada Geese. The Canada Goose has stopped migrating, and instead has become an unsustainable population and an embarrassing nuisance.

We are harvesting at an unprecedented intensity, materials that we previously only minimally harvested such as Horseshoe Crabs. In our own backyard the rufa race of the Red Knot has been drastically affected by the sudden decrease of Horseshoe Crabs which it would feed upon during their migration north. It is estimated that this race of the Red Knot could become extinct by 2011.

Migration is a natural phenomenon that can produce wonder and amazement and studying it produces valuable knowledge. We as a nation have to learn to value that knowledge and act on what it is telling us.