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BLANE KLEMEK OUTDOORS: Bird migration is a perplexing phenomenon

Except for our year-round resident birds, migrant birds are preparing to leave. Yet how do they know where to go? This question is just one of the many questions that ornithologists, naturalists and others have been asking for a long time. And though many questions have been answered, there still remains plenty of mystery.

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Ruby-throated hummingbirds are beginning their annual migration. Which begs the question: what typically triggers hummingbird migration?
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The months of September, October and November are considered meteorological fall. And though the calendar shows that it is still summer until Sept. 22, when autumn begins, here in the Northland autumn has already started.

My hummingbird feeders, once buzzing with frenzied activity all day every day, are now showing signs of a slowdown. Ruby-throated hummingbirds are beginning their annual migration. Which begs the question: what typically triggers hummingbird migration? Like all birds that migrate south, it’s the overall decrease in food. Food, or lack of it, is the overriding reason that birds migrate.

Indeed, the autumn migration is upon us once again. For many birds, it already started. Rose-breasted grosbeaks that were making regular visits to our feeders just a short time ago are now mostly gone.

Except for our year-round resident birds such as nuthatches, chickadees and many others, migrant birds are preparing to leave. Yet how do they know where to go? This question is just one of the many questions that ornithologists, naturalists and others have been asking for a long time. And though many questions have been answered, there still remains plenty of mystery.

For example, some populations of the common ringed plover migrate while other populations of the same species do not. Or, another question, why do some species of birds choose the wintering grounds they do when sites just as suitable lie, in some cases, thousands of miles closer?

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Species of woodland warblers nest throughout the northern United States and southern Canada yet spend the winters in Central America and in the West Indies. Why do they travel so far south? Wouldn’t the southern United States be suitable during the winter months?

And lesser scaup also called “bluebills,” a species of diver duck, are known to travel great distances as well. Several years ago, a single scaup that research biologists had outfitted with a radio transmitter, was documented as traveling from North Dakota’s Devils Lake all the way to Cuba in just three days.

The bird left Devil's Lake on Nov. 14, 2008, and was located next in Cuba on Nov. 17. That’s a straight line distance of 2,068 miles!

Migration is a perplexing and complicated phenomenon. As already mentioned, migration is necessary for many birds that are not able to cope with the lack of food during our winters, yet it’s also true that it’s food that keeps their fat reserves replenished.

It is for this reason that migrating birds make frequent stops to feed and rest along their migratory routes.

Another interesting facet about migration is how they do it. Flying south, or north, depending on the species or time of year, is not as simple as it sounds. Birds do not have compasses, yet they travel huge distances every year on their way to the same wintering grounds seemingly unaided. How do they know the way to go?

It is believed that since many birds migrate at night, stars and the geomagnetic fields of the earth play a role. It is also widely believed that, for many birds, migratory routes are taught. Juvenile birds learn where to migrate from older birds that have flown the specific routes in the past.

For instance, whooping cranes and other birds have been taught where to migrate by human beings flying light aircraft posing as the “lead bird” of the flock. Even the sense of smell helps some birds, like pigeons, literally smell their way home.

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Once again sandhill cranes, ducks and geese, blackbirds, robins and many other songbirds, are preparing to migrate from the Northland. Feeding heavily on nature’s bounty to build important layers of fat that will help sustain their long flights, birds everywhere know the season of plenty is coming to a close.

As autumn continues, more birds will be filtering through, more will leave and more of the sky will be filled with birds of every feather on their annual exodus, as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

Blane Klemek is a Minnesota DNR wildlife manager. He can be reached at bklemek@yahoo.com.

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Related Topics: BLANE KLEMEKNORTHLAND OUTDOORSOUTDOORS RECREATIONBIRDS
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