time is half past sunset. The crowd is restless, shifting
from foot to foot. They want to be off, moving northward.
Voices keep the group in communication, occasionally an individual
bursts into song. El Norte brings the promise of rich verdant
lands, endless opportunities and room to raise a family.
Yes, these individuals are migrants, but not
agricultural workers. They are songbirds - lazuli buntings,
black-headed grosbeaks, plumbeous vireos and many others.
Collectively they are known as neotropical migrants,
birds that winter south of the United States/Mexico border
and who breed north of this line in summer.
This migration to the north in spring is considered the norm,
yet this annual spring ritual of northbound migration is but
one of many types of migration. There is elevational migration,
where wintering birds simply move upslope to higher elevations
to breed. There are leapfrog migrants that play this childhood
game whereas populations leapfrog over sedentary populations
and seek out unoccupied habitat. There is trans-equatorial
migration and irruptive migration, where flocks either migrate
to areas of sufficient food resources and climatic conditions.
do not necessarily agree on one aspect of bird biology that
determines how birds know where they are going. Birds utilize
the sun, stars and earths magnetic field to determine
direction. Some studies suggest that olfactory sense, the
follow your nose principle, leads birds back to
their breeding or wintering grounds. Others believe that birds
can remember landmarks, but for many of these songbirds that
migrate at night, perhaps this is not the best approach.
But to me what is truly amazing is how a six-ounce bird who
can beef up its weight prior to this exhausting event makes
this sojourn in a relatively short period. One time I figured
that for me the equivalent weight-to-distance migration would
require that I walk/run/fly roughly 78,000 miles in a few
months time. And only snack along the way.
Not all birds are long distance migrants. Some, like great
homed owls or ring-necked pheasants stay put during the winter
in their breeding grounds. Dark-eyed juncos move short distances,
as well. But others, like nighthawks, bam swallows or cliff
swallows, travel south of the Equator, wintering in Brazil
or northern Argentina. The Swainsons hawk, a western
North American nester, travels in huge flocks to Argentina,
where they spend their winter eating grasshoppers and other
insects. Their annual migration distance is between 11,000
and 17,000 miles round trip.
So one question that begs to be asked is, Why migrate?
Why expend a considerable amount of energy, risk predation
and the unknowns of the new territory. One theory is that
the ancestors of todays migratory birds, at one time
in their geologic past, nested in the present day wintering
grounds. As climatic changes occurred and the more northern
lands became hospitable to these migrants, birds left their
breeding grounds to seek out new territories in these northern
latitudes. When severe weather late in the year created a
shortage of food resources, these birds retreated southward
to their historical grounds. Hence, the pattern of migration
became a habit.
Another theory reverses this thinking. In the geologic past,
way before the recent Ice Ages, the birds nested in the north,
where a warm climate prevailed. As these climates changed,
due to advancing and retreating glaciers, the birds left their
breeding grounds to seek out new territories farther southward.
Hence, the pattern of migration.
But whatever the reasons for the habit of migration, Springtime
in the Canyon Country is punctuated by the sweet songs of
these neotropical migrants (and those that dont migrate)
as they vie for breeding territories and mates. I guess Id
sing loudly too, if and when I finished my long trek.
by Damian Fagan