For Migratory Birds, Navigation is All in the Eyes

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As the weather gets colder and food more scarce, all sorts of birds will gather the flock and head South for winter. While fall migration for some species starts as soon as late June, the best time to spot avian migrants is near the end of summer and the beginning of fall, with a few stragglers taking off as late as December.

Some birds fly by night, and others during the day; some fly one way with no stopovers, while others like to take daily breaks to relax and refuel. Each species of bird has its own specific migration behavior, often based on its unique needs and flight abilities.

Red knots, for instance, will travel from their breeding grounds in the Arctic all the way down to the Tierra del Fuego archipelago at the southern tip of South America — one of the most distant migrations of any animal — while landing in key staging areas along the way. American white pelicans, on the other hand, fly much shorter distances, often during the day, and some don't even migrate at all.

Fall-Migration2

Photo Credit: Greg Breese/USFWS

Though birds' ability to navigate earth's magnetosphere has long been a mystery, a new branch of science called “quantum biology” may have finally explained the phenomenon.

While quantum physics and biology may appear incompatible, pioneering scientists now believe that birds are able to visually map earth's magnetism through a widely accepted, but highly perplexing natural mechanism called “quantum entanglement.”

It's all very confusing, even to the most well-educated scientists, but it seems that earth's magnetic field provides migrating birds with an evolutionary advantage by stimulating light-sensitive subatomic particles in the birds' eyes.

Photo Credit: Dave Menke/USFWS

Photo Credit: Dave Menke/USFWS

Besides magnetic navigation, birds also rely heavily on favorable weather for their migration. Thankfully, Cornell's Lab of Ornithology provides a weekly forecast, arranged by region, that predicts which species will be where and when. It's a pretty useful tool if you're looking to watch some birds this season.

If you're new to bird watching. please be aware that there is a code of ethics for birding. In brief, you'll want to pay respect to the birds (use only pre-existing paths, minimize noise and disturbance, keep your distance), be mindful of others (stay off private property or ask permission to be there, maintain good standing with birders and non-birders alike, make safety a priority), be a steward for the environment, and do your best to respectfully help others follow ethical birding behavior.

For those interested in birds who don't go birding for fear of disturbing them, you can do something even better. Please consider donating toward protecting vital wetland habitats — areas where many birds stopover during some of the most distant migrations.

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Matthew M. Sullivan holds a bachelor's degree in creative writing from Grand Valley State University, with emphases in fiction and nonfiction. He lives smack-dab between some railroad tracks and Grand Rapids Michigan's third-busiest road, and spends his time studying film and literary fiction.