Flight Paths

Considering the migration patterns of birds, and the instincts that teach a body when and how to move.

food bird animal animals

As weather cools and light shifts, I am remembering the late summer geese. They were molting, apparently, which is why spent several weeks doing nothing but walk around and honk. They were regarded as pests, but I admired their swagger.

Later I learned that they had been hunted to near extinction around the turn of the century. Some measures were taken to protect them. Meanwhile the geese got wise to the fact that hunting didn’t happen in the cities and the suburbs. They liked the lawns. 

When did they fly south for the winter? Many stayed put, but some would have started this month. This is what you learn to do. You can either adapt when things change or fly elsewhere.

The arctic tern goes farthest. At just under fifty-thousand miles per migration year, one of their journeys, tallied over thirty years, is the distance of three trips to the moon and back.

They store fat for the journey. Some birds will nearly double their weight. 

I wonder about those times when they get it wrong, about the ones that think they are adapting while miscalculating either the food or the poison in it. I wonder if there is a sudden moment of collective consciousness that makes some groups suddenly move, and about those times when the impulse comes just a little too late. Consider the flocks falling whole from the sky, researchers scratching their heads the next day. Often no known event can explain these falls––not directly, anyway. How often we want to blame the knowns. This is why we give children books with monsters in them, for the comfort of the danger with a face. That isn’t what gets you in the end, though, is it? It’s almost always what you can’t or won’t see, until it’s too late.

Sometimes the young ones will get confused. I don’t mean just the geese here. I’m thinking of snowy owls, wrens, wheateaters, hummingbirds, godwits, ducks, raptors, and countless species I can’t name. 

When the little ones get lost, or read the signs wrong, they can sometimes start migrating in reverse. These renegades live alone, belong to no known group of birds, and have to rely on their own instincts afterwards. They may struggle in mating season. 

Not all of the ones flying in reverse are lost. Some know exactly where they are, and how, and they know they haven’t stored enough fat to make it. But what internal gauge is telling them when they don’t have enough to make it all the way? How did they learn to hear it, and what happens when two impulses, both related to survival, demand opposite actions? How does it know? I wonder if the most necessary of the two somehow manages to be so loud that it drowns the other one out, the way it is possible–– for the hungry body on another species on edge of exhaustion, to forget food in favor of sleep’s relief.  

Notes

The Migration of Birds – from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) website

Author: Stacey C. Johnson

I am here to wonder out loud. The point is not to get a clear answer, a complete picture, but to remember how incomplete the picture is, to embrace the process once again, of discovery, of questions, to notice the stirrings of wonder. To leave crumbs behind, for the next traveler.

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