Migratory birds and lookouts
Photo: Yellow-billed Kite by Tayo Okunnaiya
What is a migratory bird?
My ornithologist-friend's mum once told her that she noticed how the Yellow-billed Kite (Àsá or Àwòdì in Yoruba) would disappear during the rainy season to reappear in the dry season. And she asked her mum, "where do you think the birds go?" Her mum replied, "into the bush"
Until 1822 when some people caught a bird in Europe, which had been pierced by a spear made from African wood, people had even wilder guesses than that. People had imagined that birds were flying to the Moon or into the mud at the bottom of ponds to hibernate! Who could have imagined that the birds were just being smart, and tracking food across continents?
The Yellow-billed Kite flies to other parts of Africa to wait out the rainy season and returns to Nigeria in the dry season when its food is abundant again, to have babies. We don't fully understand this bird's migratory patterns from Nigeria, we just know it moves northward. (I recently learned that someone is studying Yellow-billed Kite movement patterns in Nigeria, and I can’t wait to see what they find). And that's the story of migratory birds: here this season, gone the next.
Some birds migrate within a continent (birds that move within Africa are intra-African migrants), and others migrate between continents (birds that move from Europe to Africa, and back, are Palearctic migrants). They are just moving to where food is more likely to be abundant in each season. Kind of like japaa, except it’s regular and seasonal.
If you think that is cool, it might interest you to know that these migratory birds reveal things about our world that we would ordinarily not pay attention to.
Birds as lookouts
Studying birds is the quickest to gauge how healthy our environment is, whether the birds migrate annually or stay put year-round. If something goes wrong in the environment, the birds are usually the first sign. This happens for several reasons: birds are everywhere, they are conspicuous and more likely to draw attention (if not with bright colors, with their songs), and they are relatively easy to study. If a large number of birds fall from the sky in front of you, it’s hard to not notice.
But migratory birds take that signaling to a whole new level because they connect our world, and show us just how global environmental issues are.
And when I think about the theme of this year's World Migratory Bird's Day (WMBD) celebration, it's particularly striking how much of accurate environmental indicators birds have proven to be over the years.
Migratory Birds in a light-flooded world
Our bodies, just like those of birds, have an inbuilt clock that responds to natural light and darkness, telling us when to work and when to rest. But electricity and all the accompanying digital breakthroughs, awesome as they are, have given us extra hours of daylight, and less sleep time.
Most people know that regular or constant exposure to bright lights at night negatively affects our sleep patterns. We know that sleeping well is good for our health. But exposure to these lights doesn’t kill us immediately, so we put up with it, and continue to take it in. The dose of poison kills humans incrementally, but when we see birds dying from the poison in large numbers, it dawns on us just how poisonous the poison is. Just like the proverbial canary in a coal mine used to alert miners of danger.
Although we know that light pollution is a problem, we need to see migratory birds die in large numbers as they migrate through bright cities at night, to acknowledge the problem. And this WMBD is a reminder that we need to use lights at night intentionally and responsibly, not just for the sake of human health, but also for the sake of the other creatures with which we share our planet.
And in case you are wondering, that birds are a reliable indicator of environmental health is why some people (like me) make a career out of studying birds.
Stories from around the web
How night-lights in cities affect migratory birds (video)
Why do birds migrate? (article)
If you are a young person or know a young person, 18 - 30 years of age, who is working in wetland research/conservation, or interested in that, the application to be part of the East Atlantic Flyway Youth Forum is open until May 30. This year, it’s all about learning to fundraise. Good luck!
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Thank you for reading. Until next time, stay curious and excited about nature.
PS. I would love to hear your thoughts on this topic. All you have to do is hit reply!