GOOD NEWS | The Mysterious Gift of our Migrating Wildlife

publication date: May 28, 2024
author/source: Chris Snyder

Out for her morning walk, as Marissa was turning down the path towards the lake, she heard two sharp chirps and sensed there was something hovering over her head. She was right. A few seconds later a red-winged blackbird swooped down, pecked her on the head, and then returned to protecting its eggs in a nest nearby. Startled, she jumped and threw out her hands in the direction of the retreating bird yelling, “Get out of here! Get out of here!”

The same thing had happened to her almost a year ago at the same spot from a nest in the same tree. Somewhat belatedly, she realized there were signs posted nearby warning walkers to be aware of dive-bombing birds. She told herself she should have been more attentive.

How and why does this bird know to come back every year to the same tree? she wondered. She knew the sockeye salmon returned to their home area to spawn, and monarch butterflies find their way from Southern Ontario to Mexico and back. The how and why of migrating wildlife consumed her thoughts for the rest of her walk. Back at home, she sat at her computer and searched for “migrating wildlife” and within minutes found that a wide range of wildlife migrates, often for food or to reproduce. Why, however, remains a mystery.

A survival instinct

The practice of returning home is referred to as natal honing, or philopatry. Scientists think it’s part of a genetic survival instinct that’s evolved over thousands of years, using geomagnetic imprinting capabilities and olfactory clues to determine where and when to go, while providing a feeling of safety and stability.

Hundreds of bird types migrate, including many shorebirds, swallows, Atlantic puffins, pigeons, and geese … almost 400 species alone through Point Pelee on Lake Erie, and most fly the same route every year. In Eastern Canada, birds typically fly thousands of kilometers between Canada, South and Central America, and the Southern USA. From the west, they migrate to and from Southern California. Marissa’s red-winged blackbirds travel over 800 miles. In the 1890s, migrating passenger pigeons were so common they blackened the sky. That is, until humans shot them into extinction, mostly just for “fun” or “sport.”

Many fish species swim long distances to spawn: salmon, tuna, some crustaceans (crabs) (who amazingly might travel as much as 150 miles to give birth) as well as mammals such as whales and porpoises. Many hoofed animals migrate long distances—especially the wildebeest in East Africa, and the caribou who travel over 2000 miles in the tundra.

Some people argue that dogs and cats have this instinct. We’ve all heard stories of dogs and cats finding their way home after several years away, but stats show only 15% of dogs and 2% of cats without microchips find their way home.
Butterflies and turtles

Perhaps the best known and most mysterious of the migrating species of all are monarch butterflies, named after King William III, the Prince of Orange. Eastern monarchs fly in large flocks, leaving the north in the Fall, travelling at 9 km/hr and up to 80 km/day, to end up primarily in Florida, Mexico, or Central America. Western monarchs head for Southern California. Those that make it to the south, according to scientists, are not the ones who leave the north. Each of the first three generations only live several weeks along the way, and only the fourth generation makes it to the south, lives six to eight weeks, breeds and, if still living, begins the return journey. It’s their offspring who arrive back.

Sea turtles are also fascinating. Upon hatching, the vulnerable, still soft-shelled young turtles crawl towards the ocean, many failing to make it due to predation by birds and animals. Males rarely leave the water, but females do (from ages 10-50), laying up to 100 eggs every three to four years after travelling 10-20,000 miles back to the beach on which they were born. We think they use currents, the earth’s magnetic field and water chemistry to find their way.

Protecting nature

Humans are likely the biggest threat to wildlife migration, thanks to hydro poles, cell towers, cars, ships, pollution and land loss. Weather and climate change are also huge threats. Of late, however, we humans have become more aware of the magic, beauty, and importance of wildlife in the world. Over time, conservation groups have sprung up, providing awareness, research, and scientific interventions, pushing for wildlife protection. Governments have created rules and laws, and individuals have helped where they can—by blacking out windows at night during bird migration, providing food in bird feeders and growing milkweed for the monarchs.

Possibly the best known and dramatic migration conservation initiative is the saving of the whooping crane. While there were more than 10,000 whooping cranes before European settlement, by the1940s there were only 21 remaining. Through innovative conservation programs involving many partners over many years, the population has steadily recovered to around 800. Each year these beautiful and majestic birds — some as tall as five feet with a six- to seven-foot wingspan, weighing up to 18 pounds and living as long as 40 years — spend 45 days migrating from the Gulf Coast to Wood Buffalo Park in northern Canada, a trip of over 4,000 km.

The research opened Marissa’s eyes. Her blackbird was doing what every parent of every species does: protect their children. She was also thankful that the bird that had pecked her was not a 5-foot whooping crane! She vowed that next year she would avoid the tree in which the red-winged blackbird had built a nest and forever respect and revere all migrating wildlife.

Chris Snyder is the author of several books and several hundred articles on personal finance, Chris’ most recent book "Creating Opportunities-A Volunteer's Memoir" describes a lifetime of volunteer experiences, much of it as an active member of the Rotary Club of Toronto and on many not-for-profit boards. Chris is past chair of the Canadian Landmine Foundation, founding chair/current chair of HIP (Honouring Indigenous Peoples) and the Trudeau Centre of Peace, Conflict and Justice as well as past board member of CUSO and the Nature Conservancy of Canada. He organizes and runs hands-on school building trips to the developing world and is the recipient of many volunteer and community service awards, among them the Paul Harris Fellowship Award, the Queen's Gold and Diamond Jubilee Awards, the Rotary Service-Above-Self Award and the Governor General's Sovereign Award for Volunteering. His latest book, “Good News in A Crazy World,” will be published by Civil Sector Press in 2024.

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