Mighty Migrants

Blog Category
Discover Nature Notes
Published Display Date
Oct 26, 2015

An airplane pilot sits behind a panel of instruments that help get the plane safely to its destination.  Migrating birds, it seems, use some of the same tools.

Birds, of course, don’t have mechanical instruments–just their brains and senses. These amazing creatures find their way to far-off destinations using a variety of cues.

By observing the positions of the sun and the stars, in conjunction with an internal sense of time, migrating birds are able to determine their position on the surface of the earth. If it is overcast, they can still detect polarized light from the sun. A songbird’s ears can hear far lower frequency sounds than a human’s–sounds that travel hundreds of miles. This may enable a bird to plot its course by hearing the sounds of seashores and distant mountain rangers.  Doves actually have metal in their brains that enables them to navigate by sensing differences in the earth’s magnetic field.  As birds approach their destinations, they may be able to recognize landmarks or even smells.

Miraculously, through use of these many cues, the swallow wintering in Brazil can travel 5,000 miles each spring and return precisely to your backyard!

More about Migration

  • Monarch butterflies in Missouri fly for two months to make the 1,500-mile trip to Mexico to escape the cold weather. Flowers fuel their flutter. Most slurp enough nectar to gain weight on the way. For monarchs, fat is where it’s at. Once they reach Mexico, they won’t eat again for five months.
  • The small, but mighty, American golden-plover can fly for two days without stopping to eat, drink or sleep. These little birds migrate 20,000 miles between their summer home in Canada and their winter home in South America.
  • How do migrating birds find their way? If you’re a Canada goose, you follow mom and dad on your first trip south. After that, geese use landmarks such as rivers, lakes and coastlines to get from Point A to Point B.
  • By flying in a V, geese in the front block the wind for geese in the back. When the lead goose gets tired, it drops back and lets a different honker be leader.

Learn more about migration with MDC’s Xplor for kids.


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