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.”