Image: a golden-cheeked warbler sitting on a branch

Where Do Birds Really Go When They Migrate?

Millions of migratory birds leave our backyards in the fall. Where do they go and come back from twice a year?! This question has been stumping researchers for decades, but with just a single tail feather and the power of DNA sequencing, researchers are uncovering mysteries that could save our favorite flying friends.

Have you ever taken a DNA test to see what parts of the world you’re from? Now, scientists are doing this to save migratory birds. This research is helping save some of the most endangered birds in the Western Hemisphere, and answer questions that are critical to their survival.

Once a bird takes off, they are hard to track. Most of these travelers are tiny—too small for your typical GPS tracker—and journey thousands of miles, crossing mountain ranges and borders as they fly their way to wherever their ancestry tells them.

But these researchers have found a delightful way to capture the data they need to make a difference.

Image: one of many migratory birds, the golden-cheeked warbler, sitting on a branch
Source: Pixabay

Birds have a whole lot more going on than we give them credit for. They travel thousands of miles, create perfect imitations of sounds with a unique organ, are able to sleep while they’re flying, keep a tidy nest, and to top it all off, will dance their tail feathers off for love.

They’re quirky beings that come in all shapes, sizes, colors, and live in every area of the world. But to really kick it up a notch, some of them have different preferences for where they call home throughout the year. Changing locations with the seasons to follow the warmth, migratory birds can travel thousands of miles.

Why is this fact so important?

Because of the distance they travel and the technology we have to track, it’s hard to protect an endangered bird species if we don’t know where they end up when they leave us for part of the year. What’s happening in the other place that could be impacting the bird’s health?

Ornithologist and conservation scientist Kristen Ruegg is one of the heads of the Bird Genoscape Project, launched by the Center for Tropical Research, who have found an ingenious way to find where they land. She checks in with National Geographic in this video to tell us all about their work.

Via: National Geographic 1

If you’d like to learn more about the Bird Genoscape Project—I mean, you have to after watching that, right?—make sure you head over to their website! Here’s the list of the birds they’re currently making genoscapes for. And here’s how you can get involved!

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Where are you going?

Great migrations don’t just happen on land. Look up a bit more and you’re sure to catch one in action right above your head! It’s one of those little moments of wonder and imagination that we talk about so often, and it all comes from the words that are said before a question mark.

As I said at the top of the article, wondering where birds are going may seem like a simple question, but as you’ve seen by now, the impact is anything but. Their work lays the ground for so many more questions to be asked, answers to be found, and impacts to be had.

With every question you ask—the simpler, the better—you’re sure to uncover a whole new exciting world you would have never enjoyed otherwise.

Ask that strange bug you’ve never seen before that looks like a jelly bean who it is, wonder how your chocolate was made, question why you need sleep, inquire about what your new hat (which looks very good on you, by the way) is made from, discover where tiny elephants roamed, or when road trips became popular!

One great app to keep on your phone the next time you’re out for a walk to meet your tiniest plant and animal neighbors is iNaturalist! You just need to snap a photo and their community will help you uncover who it is in no time!

See what they’re all about in this article:

Become an Instant Backyard Scientist with iNaturalist! 

What if you could go on a safari and get up close and personal with hundreds of plants animals, no plane ticket, no fancy guide, and no money required? Now, all of us can experience our own backyards with a little more wonder thanks to this amazing app!

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Stay open to new possibilities! (I mean, why not?)

  • Sam

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Notes:

  1. National Geographic. “Tales of a Tailfeather | Explorers in the Field.” YouTube, 10 June 2020, www.youtube.com/watch?v=TtYRHj1j5fM. Accessed 24 Sept. 2020.
Published: November 12, 2020

Image: Samantha Burns

Sam Burns

Former Editor-In-Chief

Sam wrote and edited hundreds of articles during her time on the Goodness Exchange team from 2016-2021. She wrote about topics from the wonders of nature to the organizations changing the world and the simple joys in life! Outside of the Goodness Exchange, she’s a part-time printmaker, collector of knick-knacks, and procurer of cheeses.

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