Here to return to
SOME FAMOUS BIRD TRAVELERS
SURPRISING as are the travels of the Bobolink there are other birds which make even more wonderful journeys.
When we see how in our own time the Bobolink has gone West with other pioneers, we can to some extent understand the manner in which it may have learned the way from its summer to its winter home.
But when birds
migrate regularly to and from islands which are hundreds or even thousands of
miles from the nearest land, we are at a loss to explain how they can have
learned to make so long a journey over seas with no place to rest between the
MIGRATION TO THE BERMUDAS
One February when I was sailing to the Lesser Antilles, about midway between the Bermudas and Porto Rico, we passed a beautiful, snowy-plumaged Tropic Bird. The bird was headed northwest toward the Bermudas, was flying rapidly, and seemed to pay no attention to our steamer.
Doubtless he was hurrying to join the hundreds of his kind which every year, late in February, go to the Bermudas to rear their young.
Now this little group of islets is about six hundred miles from the most northern of the Bahamas and the same distance from the coasts of South Carolina and Nova Scotia. On every side it is surrounded by water of great depth and there is no reason to believe that there ever was any land nearer to it than those places which I have mentioned.
So the Tropic Birds which every February go to the Bermudas could not have learned the route little by little, as the Bobolinks have crossed the continent. There was no halfway house. The first journey had to be made just as the latest ones are, in one flight.
We cannot believe that the first Tropic Birds to reach the Bermudas deliberately set out like explorers to discover new worlds. Perhaps, like Columbus, they chanced to land upon the Bermudas just as he did in the Bahamas. We may also suppose that, finding plenty of fish to live on and holes in the coral rock to nest in, they stayed, laid their one egg, and raised their downy white chick. When it could join them they returned to the West Indies whence they had come.
Possibly the parents never flew back to the Bermudas but the chick, prompted by that love of the land of his birth which plays so important a part in bird migration and which we shall speak of later as the “homing instinct,” may have flown back to the Bermudas the following year. “How could he find the way?” is a question which I will try to answer in a later chapter. That his offspring do find the way, their return in hundreds every February clearly proves.
The Tropic Bird is not the only migrant which each year visits the Bermudas. Certain shore birds frequently stop here and, among land birds, the Kingfisher, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Bobolink, and Water-Thrush are sometimes found during the fall migrations.
The course of these smaller birds after leaving the Bermudas is unknown to us. Possibly they may head due south for Porto Rico, or they may go southwest toward the Bahamas.
I have wondered whether it was a flight of birds from the Bermudas to the Bahamas that Columbus so fortunately saw when his discouraged sailors were about to mutiny if he would not turn back home. On October 3 of that eventful year Columbus records that they were uttering “murmurs and menaces,” but on the following day they were visited, he writes, “by such flights of birds, and the various indications of land became so numerous, that from a state of despondency they passed to one of confident expectation.”
Finally, on October
7, birds became so abundant, all flying toward the southwest, that Columbus
changed his course to follow them. So we see that it was due to the migration
of birds not only that Columbus landed in the Bahamas instead of on the Florida
coast, but perhaps that he landed at all.
MIGRATION TO HAWAII
If we think the Tropic Bird’s flight of at least six hundred miles across the sea to that little dot which marks the Bermudas on maps of the Atlantic, remarkable, what shall we say of the birds which every year visit the Hawaiian Islands?
These islands are said to be farther from a continent than any other part of the earth’s surface., From California on the east and the Aleutian Islands on the north they are distant two thousand miles, while Japan is even farther away. Nevertheless these islands are the regular winter resort of great numbers of Golden Plover, Turn-stones, Tattlers and Curlew, all of which are believed to rear their young in Alaska.
Here, then, we have an over-sea journey more than three times as long as that to the Bermudas; and furthermore it is made to a winter, not a summer home. Unless what is called the “homing instinct” acts in the fall as well as in the spring and thus leads birds year after year to the same place in winter just as we know it does in summer, I can give no reason for the return of these birds each autumn to this remote group of islands.
Whatever may be the true explanation of the origin and cause of this journey, it is in many respects the most marvelous of all bird travels. Perhaps the Golden Plovers of the Atlantic may fly just as far without resting as those of the Pacific, but if they are overtaken by storms there are numbers of islands scattered along their route, or they may reach the mainland.
But when the Golden Plover starts on his journey to and from Hawaii he has at least two thousand miles of water to cross without one single place in which he could take refuge from a storm.
For a true sea bird like a Petrel, or a Sea-snipe like the Phalarope, such a journey would be an easy matter. When they were tired they would simply drop down on the water, tuck their heads under their wings, and thus “ride out” the most violent gale.
But the Plover is believed rarely if ever to rest upon the water. Once under way he must keep on flying until he reaches his desired haven, or falls exhausted into the sea.
Just how long it takes the Plover to fly two thousand miles no one knows, but Mr. Henry W. Henshaw who has made a special study of the migration of this bird gives us an estimate of the probable speed at which it travels. He thinks that Plovers can easily fly fifty to seventy-five miles an hour, and believes they can travel at the rate of about forty miles an hour for the entire journey. At this pace the birds would cover nine hundred and sixty miles a day, and if they steered a true course they would go from the Aleutian Islands to Hawaii in just two days and two hours.
During this time
they are without either food or rest and we may well believe that when they
land they are not only very tired but very hungry birds.
A TWO THOUSAND FOUR HUNDRED MILE FLIGHT
The Golden Plovers that nest on the shores of the Arctic Ocean spend their winters far from those that nest in western Alaska and pass this season in Hawaii.
The young Plovers are born in June, and in July, when they are large enough to fly, they all go to the coast of Labrador. Here, by feasting on crowberries, they become very fat, and thus store fuel for the long voyage which lies ahead.
From Labrador they cross the Gulf of St. Lawrence to Nova Scotia and then strike out across the ocean for northern South America, two thousand four hundred miles away.
If the weather is fine they are seen passing over the Bermudas and Lesser Antilles. But if the conditions are unfavorable they may rest on these islands or they may seek refuge on the mainland. When they reach northern South America they still have two thousand seven hundred miles to go before they arrive at their winter quarters in Argentina, nearly eight thousand miles from their nesting ground. Here they remain for about four times as long as they do in their nesting resort before beginning their northward journey.
The path they select in the spring makes the Golden Plover’s migration route one of the most puzzling things in bird migration. They do not return to the Arctic Regions over the road by which they came from them, but take a wholly different course. This leads them first to northwestern South America whence they go through Central America, or over the Caribbean Sea to the Gulf of Mexico. They then cross the Gulf, migrate up the Mississippi Valley, and finally reach their Arctic summer home through British America.
There are other birds which have a double route. For example, the Connecticut Warbler migrates northward up the Mississippi Valley, and southward along the Atlantic coast.
The Black Tern evidently follows a similar course. In the spring it is rarely seen on the North Atlantic coast but from August to early October it is not uncommon there.
How can we explain these double migration routes in which a bird goes south one way and returns another?
Here there is no
gradual advancing followed by retracing of steps, generation after generation,
as there has been, for example, with the Bobolink. These birds never go back
by the route over which they came, and how they have learned either to go or
come I am sure I do not know.
THE WORLD’S CHAMPION MIGRANT
What Professor Cooke well calls the “world’s migration champion” is the Arctic Tern. This bird looks much like the common Tern which was so nearly exterminated by milliners’ collectors not many years ago, but, thanks to protection on its nesting grounds, is now becoming more numerous.
The Arctic Tern nests from the coast of Maine northward to the very northern limit of land and it winters along the borders of the Antarctic Continent. The distance between its summer and winter home is, therefore, about eleven thousand miles. This means that one bird flies nearly half-way around the earth and back each year. This great journey is made by thousands of Arctic Terns; but in spite of their numbers and the length of their route, few ornithologists have ever seen them traveling, and no one knows just what route they follow. On the Atlantic coast they have been seen south of their nesting ground but once. So it seems probable that, like the Golden Plover, they migrate far out at sea.
Professor Cooke calls attention to the interesting fact that the Arctic Tern “has more hours of daylight than any other animal on the globe. At the northern nesting-site the midnight sun has already appeared before the birds’ arrival, and it never sets during the entire stay at the breeding grounds. During two months of their sojourn in the Antarctic the birds do not see a sunset, and for the rest of the time the sun dips only a little way below the horizon and broad daylight is continuous. The birds, therefore, have twenty‑four hours of daylight for at least eight months in the year, and during the other four months have considerably more daylight than darkness.”
lives these famous bird travelers live! Almost constantly they are on the go.
The scene is ever changing. Here today, they are hundreds Of miles away
tomorrow. Once the brief nesting season is over they are free for the rest of
the year and in their winter homes may wander whither the fare is most to their
liking. But we must not forget the dangers to which their long journeys expose
them. Thousands fall by the way; and of those that leave us in the fall
possibly not more than half return the following spring.
SUGGESTIONS FOR STUDY
Where are the Bermuda Islands? How far are they from the nearest land? When were they discovered? To whom do they belong? What bird travelers visit them? Where are the Bahamas? When and by whom were they discovered? What part did birds play in their discovery? Where are the Hawaiian Islands? To whom do they belong? How far are they from the nearest land? What birds visit them in winter? Trace on the map the migration route of the western Golden Plover. At about what rate of speed is it believed to travel? At this rate, how long a time would it require to fly from the Aleutian Islands to the Hawaiian Islands? Trace on the map the route of the eastern Golden Plover in traveling from its summer home to its winter quarters; and in returning. In what respect is its journey remarkable? Mention some other birds which have a double migration route. Trace the route followed by the Arctic Tern.