More than 300 kinds of birds can be seen in Missouri, and over half of them migrate. Migration is when an animal lives in one place for part of the year and goes to a new place to live for the rest of the year. Some birds migrate just a short distance. Others make epic journeys. Here are a few of Missouri’s migration masters.
What weighs less than five pennies and can fly nonstop for more than three days? Blackpoll warblers spend winter in the rainforests of South America. To get there, the tiny birds fly 1,800 miles over the Atlantic Ocean without stopping. Gram for gram, this is the longest nonstop flight of any bird in the world. Blackpolls prepare for the long haul by stuffing their beaks with bugs. The fat they pack on fuels their flapping like gasoline fuels a car. The only difference? If your car used fuel as efficiently as a blackpoll, you could drive 720,000 miles on a single gallon of gas.
Just. Keep. Flapping.
Because of their black-and-white color pattern, some people call bobolinks “skunk blackbirds.” But nothing stinks about how far these little songbirds can fly. Bobolinks nest in prairies and grasslands of the Midwest. When they’re done raising babies, they point their beaks south and fly all the way down to rice fields and marshes in Paraguay and Argentina, a round-trip distance of nearly 13,000 miles. Bobolinks can live to be 10 years old. At that age, a bobolink will have traveled a distance equal to five trips around the Earth!
Purple martins live in the Show-Me State (and most of the eastern U.S.) during the summer, performing acrobatic flights to snap up insects on the crowd-loving birds gather in huge flocks. One multitude of martins near St. Charles contained more than 100,000 birds. Another in South Carolina contained more than 700,000! Their flocks can grow so enormous that meteorologists often spot them on weather radar. The gatherings look like blue doughnuts on a radar map.
Broad-winged hawks nest in the eastern U.S. and spend winter in Central America and the Amazon. To save energy during what can be a two month-long, 4,000-mile flight, broad-wings ride rising air currents high into the sky. As the hawks go up, up, up, they circle round and round like soup noodles stirred by an invisible spoon. These flocks or “kettles” often contain thousands of hawks riding the same air currents. When the hawks get high enough, they glide forward to catch the next current.
Why Do Birds Migrate?
Why do migrating birds fly such a long way? Some people say because it’s too far to walk, but the real reason is to feed and to breed. Birds move north in the spring to take advantage of lots of food and nesting sites. When food grows scarce or they’re done raising their young, they head south. How do birds know when to go? They likely get the itch to migrate from changes in temperature, day length, or food supplies.
The word “peregrine” means “wanderer.” And that’s certainly true for peregrine falcons. One of the most widespread animals on Earth, these sleek, fast-flying falcons can be found from tropics to tundras, mountains to lowlands, wetlands to deserts, and on islands in the ocean. Peregrines are even known to nest atop city skyscrapers. Some falcons spend their whole lives in the same place. But those that migrate usually go a l-o-n-g way. For example, peregrines that nest on Canadian tundras usually spend winter in southern South America and may travel 15,500 miles each year.
When snow geese migrate, they like to be loud and in a crowd.
The snow-white birds (which can also be bluish-gray) fly south in noisy flocks that can contain hundreds of thousands of geese. Along the way, the flocks swirl down to feed in fallow fields and wetlands, blanketing the ground. The more geese in the group, the more eyes there are to keep watch while other geese feed. If a lookout spots a predator, it honks an alarm, and the whole flock takes flight like an upside-down snowstorm.
Other birds may migrate farther or faster, but it would be tough to find a bird that makes more migrations than a Canada goose. In 1969, biologists in Ohio caught a 1-year-old female Canada goose and put a metal identification bracelet around her leg. In 2001 — 32 years later — the same honker turned up in Ontario, Canada. The goose had likely made 33 trips north, 33 trips south, and covered nearly 100,000 miles over the course of her long life.
Compared to other world-class migrators, red-breasted mergansersdon’t travel all that far. But these fisheating waterfowl can sure get where they want to go in a hurry. To take flight, mergansers must pitter-patter across the water’s surface for several yards. Once airborne, however, they can boogie along at a blistering 80 miles per hour! Mergansers nest in northern Canada and spend winter along the coasts of North America. Some pass through Missouri on their way north and south.
Hudsonian godwits chase summer from one end of the Earth to the other. In July the chunky, long-beaked shorebirds nest high in the Arctic. By November, they’ve hopscotched from mudflat to marsh and bog to beach all the way to the southern tip of South America. Biologists fitted several godwits with tiny devices to record the birds’ locations. The biologists were shocked to learn that a female godwit flew 6,000 miles over seven days without stopping. In a year, a godwit may log 20,000 air miles, making their marathon migration one of the longest to pass through Missouri.
World Record Migrator
Arctic terns don’t travel through Missouri, but they do earn the world record for the farthest known migration. The tiny white seabirds nest in Greenland and winter in Antarctica, following a zigzagging route between the two points. Biologists tracked the terns using tiny transmitters attached to the birds’ bodies. They found that terns may rack up an astonishing 40,000 miles in a single year! Over a tern’s 30-year life, it may travel a distance equal to three round trips to the moon.
Some people call Missouri “flyover country.” But migrating birds probably think of it as “stopover country.” Millions of birds pass through the Show-Me State at some point during their migrations. Missouri’s wetlands, prairies, and forests offer perfect pitstops for these tired and hungry travelers.
This Issue's Staff
Angie Daly Morfeld
Nichole LeClair Terrill