What Can We Learn from Studying Bird Migration?

By Angelica Hernandez and Rafael Paredes
October 2009

Close your eyes and imagine you are in a huge football field. It is completely dark and all you can see are the stars in the firmament. It is a life challenge: you must run towards the other extreme of the field as fast as can in order to survive. Now, imagine you are at the same place, but this time the field is filled with obstacles. Your challenge is the same--how fast can you run? Will you make it to the other extreme without deadly collision?

This imaginary challenge is a reality for many migratory birds year after year. At first it was a lot easier, without obstacles, big buildings, fences, highways, towers; all these things we have created to make life easier for us but inadvertently, more complicated and dangerous for the migrants.

Each year thousands of warblers, vireos, thrushes of less than one ounce of weight immerse themselves in a wonderful adventure: flying in the seeming infinity of the night to arrive at an unknown place located thousands of miles away from where they saw the world for the first time. This challenge, however, cannot be completed in a single jump. Each sunrise they must find a safe place to rest and gather the energy needed to continue the next night. This stopover place could range from a backyard tree to a migratory hot spot; it doesn’t matter the size or place; they are both as important to the traveling birds as are each and all of the rivets in an airplane. How many rivets can we lose before the plane falls apart? How many stopover places can we lose before the migrants can no longer make their trip? Certainly we do not know the answer, but there’s one thing we can be sure: the number is not too large and we have been seeing the danger signals for years.

In the last few decades, scientists have noticed how the number of migratory birds is dwindling. Over time there are fewer nestlings that leave their nests during the summer, and fewer adults that come back in the spring looking for a place to breed. Development of cities, deforestation, pollution, overuse of fossil fuels--all these actions are carrying the planet to an extreme never seen before, certainly affecting the birds on their journeys, but also affecting all the living creatures in the world, including us. Will this be the place we want for our children? We must establish ourselves as stewards of the planet, so that our legacy will be more than the Silent Spring that Rachel Carson wrote about in the 1960s, making reference to woods and fields without the songs of birds.

As wildlife biologist interns from Colombia and Mexico working with Bandelier scientists this migratory bird season, we are learning first hand about these problems and sharing our knowledge with schoolchildren in Northern New Mexico. First, we make classroom visits to set the stage for the scientific work children will watch on a field trip. We explain catching, banding, and evaluating the birds, even demonstrating the process by “banding” a volunteer student. Then we discuss both the known evidence and the mysteries we hope to solve about bird migration—why birds migrate (or why they don’t), where they go, what signals they look for, what dangers they face. At the banding site in Upper Alamo Canyon, children see the mist net used for catching the birds safely; the careful removal of each bird from the net; the weighing, measuring, and banding of the birds. Most impressive is watching a few children breathlessly holding a hermit thrush, chickadee, or junco and then releasing it to freedom with the hope that we know better how to help it survive.


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