Current Nature: Migration Marvels

Kristin Bullett, Community Engagement Coordinator for the Linda Loring Nature Foundation •

In the next few weeks, the first seasonal residents will return to Nantucket. No, not mainlanders- migratory birds! The majority of birds that we see on Nantucket spend the winter elsewhere, either somewhere very warm or very cold depending on the bird. Soon a trickle of songbirds and shorebirds will arrive, beginning another spring nesting season.

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One of the most-anticipated migratory birds, Osprey, should be on island by the end of March.

Migratory birds have unique life histories and many adaptations that help them survive long journeys. They are some of the most inspiring creatures on Earth, and they are important to every habitat they travel through. As they move, migratory birds spread nutrients between habitats, keep insect and rodent populations down, and pollinate many plant species. These are some of the ecosystem services most birds provide but amplified over a larger area.

Protecting migratory bird species is a challenge. The very thing that makes these birds special makes their protection difficult. A bird that splits the year between the U.S. and Argentina needs to be protected in both places and their stopping grounds in between. When habitat is lost anywhere along their migration route, the birds are at risk for population decline even if they are protected in other places. Conservation needs to cross borders and follow the bird as it travels, which means a variety of government agencies, nonprofits, research institutes, and landowners need to work together to achieve conservation goals.

For such a spectacle, we sure do know a lot about bird migration. How do you track billions of animals as they travel millions of miles? How do you count them? You will need to follow these creatures far into the Arctic and deep into jungles, across oceans, and over mountain ranges. Have you ever wondered how scientists unravel the mysteries of migration, especially considering these challenges?

A mixed group of ducks migrates over a marsh. Photo by Evalyn Bemis for Audubon Photography Awards

Many scientists embrace the tough conditions of working in bird migration research. While working for the American Ornithological Society, Rebecca Heisman became fascinated with the creative techniques that scientists use to study bird migration. This experience is the basis for her book Flight Paths: How a Passionate and Quirky Group of Pioneering Scientists Solved the Mystery of Bird Migration. Heisman shares the history of developing tools to research bird migration, from the first attempts to mark individual birds to DNA technology.

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Interested in stories of migration research? Join us for Science Pub on March 11th, where Rebecca Heisman will share stories from the field and discuss why studying migration is so crucial for bird conservation. There’s just enough time to read Flight Paths before the talk! Register free here.

Stay tuned for more editions of Current Nature, a bi-weekly column featuring seasonal topics, natural history information, and advice on the outdoors from the staff at the Linda Loring Nature Foundation.

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