Today, most people know that birds migrate by flying south during winter, and then fly north again as the days grow longer and temperatures rise. We also understand that some birds fly great distances each year to move from their summer homes to their winter spots.
Did you know that our understanding of bird migration is a relatively recent development?
Well into the 1600s, as a way of explaining why some birds disappeared in winter, it was common “knowledge” that some birds hibernated in the ground or underwater. Additionally, people were taught that other birds transformed into different birds in winter (and then back again in summer) as a way of explaining why certain birds were never seen together.
Interestingly, this erroneous knowledge goes back to Aristotle who lived from 384-322 BCE (Before the Common Era). Aristotle’s theories and observations about the natural world were influential well into the 1600s – basically, because no one had a better explanation. (If you’re not good at math, that adds up to nearly 2,000 years!)
I understand how people who never travelled more than a few miles in a lifetime might accept theories of birds burrowing underground. After all, I still find it hard to imagine a creature so small flying thousands of miles to another part of the world and back again, year after year. Especially knowing that all along their journeys of many thousands of miles those migrants need to find safe places where they can rest, feed and get water.
Imagine walking the 1,400 miles from Woodstock to Miami Florida for winter. It might take a healthy person 60 days to make such a trip. And along the way, he or she would need to stop for water, food and rest. Now, imagine that along the way, there are vast areas where there are no restaurants or houses. What if the water has been contaminated and is unsafe to drink. How many days might a person survive without water or food?
This is the challenge that birds face during their annual trips north and south. Areas along the way that were once open marshes or wooded hills have been drained and cleared for homes and businesses. Food is scarce, and may even be unsafe, laced with chemicals from the pesticides and herbicides that the new residents of the former marshes and woodlands spray to keep their lawns green and pest-free.
It’s a hard journey.
While it may not be possible to restore the marshes and woodlands to make the birds’ journeys easier, there are other things each of us can do to help them along the way:
- Use native trees, shrubs and plants in the home landscape – natives offer known, good food sources for migrating birds.
- Eliminate the use of pesticides in the home landscape. Consider that these toxic chemicals will get into the food chain as healthy birds, beneficial insects and animals eat the pests that were the target of the poisons.
- Provide a source of water for birds throughout the year, but especially in the winter.
- Set up a bird feeding station in your yard with a variety of feeder types and seed varieties to attract a diversity of birds.
Sit back and enjoy!