Question: Why do birds fly south for the winter?
Answer: It’s too far to walk.
Yuk, yuk. In truth, birds fly south in the fall and north in the spring for the same reason many of us do: warmth. But the birds also do it for food and breeding, both of which are available to us whether we migrate or not.
A few weeks ago, the robins returned around here and the owls are hooting their love songs — sure signs that spring is finally trying to make its tardy appearance.
For the first time in many years, I didn’t see any robins here during the winter. Maybe they knew it was going to be colder than normal and headed south, maybe as far as Muscatine or even Burlington.
But they are back, as evidenced by the constant singing and the onset of nest work. Actually, the males are doing the construction or renovation of their old nests in preparation for the females, who follow the male migration by about three weeks. Bluebirds do the same thing. Interestingly, robins don’t mind other robins’ nests nearby, but bluebirds will not tolerate another bluebird nest within about 100 feet.
More than 800 species of wild birds nest, winter or migrate through the United States and more than 500 of them spend part of their life cycles in the upper Midwest. Those I like to watch for in the spring include the ruby-throated hummingbird, evening grosbeak, killdeer, red-wing blackbird, indigo bunting, Northern oriole, and the pelicans that migrate along the Mississippi River.
Here are some odd bird migration facts for you to insert at dull moments at nerdy cocktail parties or during awkward pauses in office meetings:
• Some birds nearly double their body weight before migrating. (One of my goals, once I reach my destination.)
• Songbirds migrate at an altitude of 500 to 2,000 feet. Geese and vultures have been known to migrate at 29,000-37,000 feet, a common altitude for commercial airlines. (But those birds don’t file flight plans with the FAA. For that reason, songbirds live longer.)
• Birds in migration can travel as far as 16,000 miles. They usually stop a few times for food and maybe directions, but they don’t have to take potty breaks. (If you hear birds migrating, don’t look up.)
• With an average weight of 1/8 of an ounce, hummingbirds are the smallest migrating birds. They can travel as fast as 30 mph when migrating. Their migratory path takes them across the Gulf of Mexico and they do it nonstop, which can be as far as 600 miles. (There’s a smaller bird that doesn’t migrate?)
• The Arctic tern makes the longest journey, flying 44,000 miles during its semi-annual migration from pole to pole. (Why leave one frozen wasteland just to get to another?)
• Instinctively, migrating birds know where to migrate and how to navigate back home. They use the stars, the sun, and Earth’s magnetism to help them find their way. They also almost always return home to where they were born. (Because of that, the presence of those gooey, green, worm-shaped blobs on sidewalks, playgrounds and parking lots is the result of the intentional hatching of Canada geese right here in the Quad Cities. Gee thanks, whoever started that program.)
• The speedster of all migraters is the great snipe. They fly nonstop over a distance of about 4,200 miles at an average phenomenal speed of 60 mph. (No bird cops sitting in small towns with radar and quotas to fill up there.)
On a final note, like the birds, I will soon be migrating, but with no return flight plans. My wife and I will be moving from this area to be closer to family. However we plan to spend part of our winters in Florida. Why Florida? For the same reasons the as birds – warm weather and plentiful food — in our case, fresh seafood. Probably no more breeding, though.
I hope you have enjoyed reading this column over the past two years at least half as much as I have enjoyed writing it. Please remember to get off the couch and enjoy our great outdoors. And take a couple kids along!