The Science of Sustainability

Producer's Notes: The Great Migration

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Many species of birds migrate, from hummingbirds to bald eagles, ranging near and far to take advantage of better conditions for feeding and nesting.

When people think of bird migration, most naturally think of water fowl. Ducks and geese seem to get a lot of attention in that regard. But many other species of birds migrate, from hummingbirds to bald eagles, ranging near and far to take advantage of better conditions for feeding and nesting. I always remember the swallows returning to Capistrano, mainly because I think of Bugs Bunny singing about it. According to tradition, each year the little birds return religiously to Mission San Juan Capistrano on St. Joseph's Day, March 19th, seen by some to be a miracle.

Today we are discovering a lot more about the miracle of bird migration. And there is a lot to be learned and benefited by studying these birds. Using satellite, radio and acoustic tags, scientists are learning about the environmental triggers for the birds’ migration, and how they navigate. They’ve revealed some birds follow the sun and the stars; others rely on geography or internal magnetic compasses, while still others use multiple means of navigation. Some birds fly thousands of miles non-stop while others fly short distances, and with multiple rest periods. This is important information for conservationists, allowing them to map out the optimum areas for protection in order to provide needed habitat for migrating birds. In addition, through these careful studies, we are also learning how global climate change can and will effect bird migration. And, in turn, we are also learning how the world’s climate is changing. These studies may even have great health benefits, as scientists from USGS follow tagged birds’ movements on the flyways and learn more about the spread of avian flu throughout the world.

Birds are beautiful. They are beloved and cherished by many as symbols of the natural world. And because they travel the globe, they give us great insight into the big picture… if we choose to pay attention.

Along the California coast, according to local lore, when the swallows returned to Capistrano, the flocks were so large they looked like rain clouds. Unfortunately, last year, only a few birds returned to the mission. Disappointed locals say it has been years since the swallows returned in great numbers. But there’s always hope.

I believe Mother Nature will respond if we give her a helping hand. So for now I’ll listen to Bugs crooning in my head:“All the mission bells will ring, The chapel choir will sing, The happiness you'll bring will live in my memory. When the swallows come back to Capistrano, that's the day I pray that you'll come back to me.”


Watch The Great Migration TV story online.

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Category: Biodiversity, Biology, Climate, Environment, Partners, Television

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Chris Bauer

About the Author ()

Chris Bauer is a Media Producer for QUEST. Chris has nearly 20 years experience working in broadcast television; producing sports, history, technology, science, environment and adventure related programming. He is a two-time winner of the international Society of Environmental Journalists Award for Outstanding Television Story and has received multiple Northern California Emmy Awards. Some of his Quest stories have been featured in the San Francisco Ocean Film Festival, Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival, United Nations Association Film Festival, the BLUE Ocean Film Festival and the Environmental Film Festival in Washington DC. A 5th generation Bay Area resident and a graduate of St. Mary's College of California, his hobbies include canoeing, snowboarding, wood-working and trying to play the ukulele. He and his family live in San Francisco.
  • Chris Bauer

    Satellite Tracking Reveals How Wild Birds May Spread Avian Flu

    For the first time, migratory birds marked with satellite transmitters were tracked during an outbreak of highly pathogenic H5N1 avian influenza virus in Asia.

    Scientists from the USGS Alaska Science Center and the University of Tokyo attached satellite transmitters to northern pintail ducks several months before the H5N1 virus was discovered in dead and dying whooper swans at wetlands in Japan. The results point to evidence that wild birds may be partly responsible for the spread of the virus to new areas.

    For more information, see: http://alaska.usgs.gov/science/biology/avian_influenza/

  • Chris Bauer

    This Saturday, May 8th, is International Migratory Bird Day! There are quite a few great events planned to mark the day. At Muir Woods National Monument in Marin, the GGNRA will be celebrating birds with family games, group activities, live demonstrations, and a chance to help migratory birds by joining the Beach Cleanup at Muir Beach. I think they even have a live spotted owl out there to meet everyone! For more information, see: http://www.parksconservancy.org/calendar/events-old/international-migratory-bird.html

    To learn more and get information on events, educational materials, bird watching tips and even a coloring page, go to: http://www.birdday.org/
    http://www.birdday.org/2010materials/2010ColoringPage.pdf

  • Chris Bauer

    Good year for ducks in North America.

    The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released a report today based on surveys of breeding ducks and habitats, conducted in May. The total duck population is reported to be nearly 41 million, close to last year’s estimate and 21 percent above the long-term average.

    “These are encouraging numbers as we see most species are at or above their long-term averages,” said Dale Humburg, Ducks Unlimited chief biologist. “The habitat conditions in many regions should support a good breeding effort.”

    For more information, see:
    [http://www.ducks.org/media/news/_images/NewsReleaseBanner400.jpg]