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A Napoleonic November

by Damian Fagan

I stand in my backyard and watch as skeins of geese fly southward. Their V-formation breaks down as birds drift out of line. The rearrangement resembles a giant chevron or check mark against the early morning sky.

But birdwatchers are not the only ones who have looked skyward and read the messages of migrating birds. Throughout history our agrarian society has seen the writing in the sky and the changing of seasons as flocks of birds move overhead. Of course, bird migration also takes place at night, but certain species tend to be noisier about their journey than others. Historically, this movement signaled times to harvest or times to plant, depending upon the year.

In George C. Bompa’s book Life of Frank Buckland, he quotes Buckland’s commentary on how European politics of the early 19th century may have turned out differently if the Emperor Napoleon had only been a birdwatcher.

If the Emperor Napoleon, when on the road to Moscow with his army in 1811, had condescended to observe the flights of storks and cranes passing over his fated battalions, subsequent events in the politics of Europe might have been very different. These storks and cranes knew of the coming on of a great and terrible winter, the birds hastened towards the south, Napoleon and his army towards the North.”

Sometimes it pays to look up.

European politics aside, bird migration is a mixed bag of awe-inspiring feats to ho-hum movements. There are species that travel thousands of miles and cross vast expanses of ocean all on tiny wingbeats.

Birds orient and navigate by a variety of compasses: the sun, the stars and the magnetic fields of the earth. Included in their travel bag are their senses of smell, hearing and sight that also play a role in this process.

Landforms create routes or barriers to migration, and birds use winds and updrafts off of ridges, canyons and mountains to aid in their journey. Returning adults have an advantage of experience over their young, yet many of these first-time migrants posses an innate sense as to where they should go.

Of the 650 or so bird species that breed in North America, about 130 are nonmigratory. These nonmigratory species may not stay put through the winter, but move locally from higher to lower elevations or disperse from their natal (birth) areas to the surrounding locales. Almost half of all North American species head south across the border into Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean, or South America. These border-crossers are called “neotropical migrants” after their New World or Neotropic wintering choice. Songbirds make up a vast majority of these travelers.

The other two-fifths of the birds migrate within (mostly) the confines of temperate North America. Waterfowl and many species in the finch and sparrow families compromise this group. Looking outside my window in the winter I often see a mix of dark-eyed juncos, white-crowned sparrows, American goldfinches, and evening grosbeaks all members from these two families.

At times, other species replace their counterparts who have already moved south. An example would be robins from Canada showing up while their Moab relatives have left the area. The individual’s origin is hard to discern without either color bands on the legs or tiny satellite transmitters attached to their backs, and some locals stick around throughout the winter anywise; hence, the mixed bag portion of the migration equation.

No matter. One given is that there are birds to look at in November in Moab. The Scott M. Matheson Wetlands Preserve and the Mill Creek Parkway are a couple of “in-town” areas that are highly recommended for birdwatching. And maybe the birds you’ll see will indicate the severity of the upcoming winter and not leave you going the wrong way like Emperor Napoleon.

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