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  • Migratory Birds: Connecting Us to the Rest of the World

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    Tags: birds, ornithology, migration

    Created: 5/13/2015      Updated: 8/1/2016

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    Red-winged blackbird

    Red-winged Blackbird

    It’s Christmas at the Nature Museum today. Or at least that’s what it seems like with all of the colorful ornaments adorning the trees around the building. These ornaments are actually migratory birds though, arriving to celebrate spring. Blue-winged and yellow warblers, red-winged blackbirds and redstarts, gold finches in their breeding finery, and blue-grey gnatcatchers seem to be flitting from every bough. Veery and wood thrush provide holiday songs, while kingfishers lay down the beat.  Even the catbird, while not as melodious as some, contributes soft mews that spice the soundscape, too.

    Palm warbler

    Palm Warbler

    For many of these species, Chicago is the last layover on a transcontinental flight from winter home to breeding grounds. For others, this is their final stop; they will spend the summer eating bugs and weed seeds in our neighborhoods. Such a migration is one of the amazing phenomena of life. For example, the blackpoll warbler may fly for 1,500 miles in one hop, often over open ocean. Though some will pause at North Pond after they leave Brazil, Blackpolls only finish their seasonal travel when they are near the arctic, where the trees and the bugs are perfect for nesting and feeding protein-hungry young. 

    Though I’ve spent my share of time in airports and flying over the ocean, migration remains an abstract concept to me. My own personal peregrinations rely on fossil fuels and technology, punctuated by stops at greasy spoons and historical monuments. In contrast, birds cross continents using their own metabolic power. They spend a few frenetic weeks foraging on every high calorie insect they can find, sometimes doubling their summer weight. Then, when the weather is right and the moon is full they launch themselves into the void and fly. 

    Male cardinal

    Cardinal

    I’ve hiked a lot at night in the desert and sat in the shade all day-- which might be comparable to some of the weakest migrators-- but imagine walking day and night, in weather foul and fair. Such a trek is almost inconceivable for me, yet many birds do it every spring and autumn for their whole lives. More concrete to me than migration is the physical presence of a bird. All winter I enjoy the blue jays, chickadees, and house sparrows that live in my neighborhood. Then, suddenly one morning I see a flash of red that is somehow more intense than a cardinal, faster than a flicker, and more skulking than a nuthatch—a scarlet  tanager! This bird flew from the foothills of the Andes, crossed the Panama canal, probably spent a day or two in the Yucatan then bee-lined across the gulf of Mexico, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Missouri only to pause in a tree outside my window, pluck a bug from the branch, and disappear into the leaves.

    Scarlet tanager

    Scarlet Tanager (CheepShot via CC BY 2.0)

    It’s easy to have a feeling of ownership towards the birds that live near us. When a robin builds its nest above the back door, it’s “your” bird. Did the baby’s hatch? Did they fledge? Maybe you even left some worms on the sidewalk to supplement the meals. Doubtless you would close the door softly or even stop using the door altogether during incubation. And what would you do if a cat began stalking “your” robin?

    In the same way that the robin is “yours,” so is the scarlet tanager. Cats will kill it and pesticides will starve it just as surely as they will the local robin. However, that scarlet tanager lives in many people’s backyards during the year. All it takes is one loose cat in Costa Rica, one field sprayed for bugs in Honduras, one windmill in Texas, or one well lit building in Chicago to kill that tanager before it gets to your back yard. If migratory birds belong to anyone, they belong to all of us. Our stewardship of the environment today matters for both the bird and for our brothers and sisters around the world everyday.

    While it may not actually be Christmas at the Nature Museum today, it is a season of celebration of life and of the parts of life that we all share.

    Steve Sullivan, Senior Curator of Urban Ecology

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