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Migration of Birds

The History and Scope of Migration


The migrations of birds were probably among the first natural phenomena to attract the attention and arouse the imagination of man. Recorded observations on the subject date back nearly 3,000 years, to the times of Hesiod, Homer, Herodotus, Aristotle, and others. In the Bible there are several references to the periodic movements of birds, as in the Book of Job (39:26), where the inquiry is made: "Doth the hawk fly by Thy wisdom and stretch her wings toward the south?" The author of Jeremiah (8:7) wrote: "The stork in the heavens knoweth her appointed time; and the turtledove, and the crane, and the swallow, observe the time of their coming." The flight of quail that saved the Israelites from starvation in their wanderings through the Sinai wilderness is now recognized as a vast migration between their breeding grounds in eastern Europe and western Asia and their winter home in Africa.

 Of observers whose writings are extant, Aristotle, naturalist and philosopher of ancient Greece, was one of the first to discuss the subject of bird migration. He noted cranes traveled from the steppes of Scythia to the marshes at the headwaters of the Nile, and pelicans, geese, swans, rails, doves, and many other birds likewise passed to warmer regions to spend the winter. In the earliest years of the Christian era, Pliny the Elder, Roman naturalist, in his"Historia Naturalis," repeated much of what Aristotle had said on migration and added comments of his own concerning the movements of starlings, thrushes, and European blackbirds.

 Aristotle also must be credited with the origin of some superstitious beliefs that persisted for several centuries. One of these, that birds hibernated, became so firmly rooted, Dr. Elliott Coues (1878),1 an eminent American ornithologist, listed the titles of no less than 182 papers dealing with the hibernation of swallows. In fact the hibernation theory survived for more than 2,000 years, and it was not until early in the nineteenth century that its acceptance as an explanation for the winter disappearance of birds was almost completely abandoned. Even after this, a few credulous persons suggested this idea as an explanation for the disappearance of chimney swifts in the fall before bands from wintering swifts were finally reported as taken by Indians in Peru (Coffey 1944).

 The followers of Aristotle believed the disappearance of many species of birds in the fall was accounted for by their passing into a torpid state where they remained during the cold season, hidden in hollow trees, caves, or in the mud of marshes. Aristotle ascribed hibernation not only to swallows, but also to storks, kites, doves, and others. Some early naturalists wrote fantastic accounts of the flocks of swallows allegedly seen congregating in marshes until their accumulated weight bent into the water the reeds on which they clung and thus submerged the birds. It was even recorded that when fishermen in northern waters drew up their nets they sometimes had a mixed "catch" of fish and hibernating swallows. Clarke (1912) quotes Olaus Magnus, Archbishop of Upsala, who in 1555 published a work entitled "Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalis et Natura," wherein he observed that if swallows so caught were taken into a warm room they would soon begin to fly about but would live only a short time.

Although the idea of hibernation as a regular method of spending the winter is no longer accepted for any species of bird, certain hummingbirds, swifts, and poorwills have been known to go into an extremely torpid condition in cold weather (Jaeger 1948, 1949). Thus Aristotle was at least partially vindicated.

Aristotle also was the originator of the theory of transmutation, or the seasonal change of one species into another. Frequently one species would arrive from the north just as another species departed for more southerly latitudes. From this he reasoned the two different species were actually one and assumed different plumages to correspond to the summer and winter seasons.

Probably the most remarkable theory advanced to account for migration is contained in a pamphlet, "An Essay toward the Probable Solution of this Question: Whence come the Stork and the Turtledove, the Crane, and the Swallow, when they Know and Observe the Appointed Time of their Coming," mentioned by Clarke (1912: v. 1, 9-11) published in 1703. It is written "By a Person of Learning and Piety," whose "probable solution" stated migratory birds flew to the moon and there spent the winter. Astronauts have so far failed to verify this.

Some people, who easily accepted the migratory travels of larger birds, were unable to understand how smaller species, some of them notoriously poor fliers, could make similar journeys. They accordingly conceived the idea that larger species (e.g., storks and cranes) carried their smaller companions as living freight. In some southern European countries, it is still believed these broad-pinioned birds serve as aerial transports for hosts of small birds that congregate upon the Mediterranean shore awaiting the opportunity for passage to winter homes in Africa. Similar beliefs, such as hummingbirds riding on the backs of geese, have been found among some tribes of North American Indians.

Today we realize that birds do not migrate by "hitching" rides with other birds and that the scope of the migration phenomenon is worldwide, not simply limited to the United States, the Northern Hemisphere, or the world's land masses. The migration heritage is developed just as extensively in Old World warblers migrating to and from Europe and Africa as in our wood warblers traveling from Canada and the United States to South America and back. One of the fundamental differences in migration patterns of the Northern and Southern Hemispheres is that no land species nesting in the South Temperate Zone migrates into the North Temperate Zone, but a few seabirds, such as the sooty shearwater, Wilson's storm-petrel, and others, migrate north across the Equator over the vast ocean expanses after nesting in the South.

1Publications referred to parenthetically by date are listed in the Bibliography.


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