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Migration of Birds

Stimulus for Migration


Modern views based on studies of bird behavior and physiology indicate migration is a regular, annually induced movement, modified by local weather conditions, but largely independent of them. Migration is a phenomenon far too regular to be created anew each season merely under stress of circumstances, such as need for food; and it begins before the necessity for a change in latitude becomes at all pressing. Swallows, nighthawks, shorebirds, and others may start their southward movement while the summer food supply in the North is at peak abundance. American robins and bluebirds may leave abundant food in the South and press northward when food supplies there are almost entirely lacking and severe cold and storms are likely to cause their wholesale destruction. Regularity of arrival and departure is one of the most impressive features of migration, and since birds travel in a rather strict accordance with the calendar, we might ask: "What phenomena, other than the regular changes in length of day, occur with sufficient precision to act as a stimulus for migration?"

 Experimental work has abundantly demonstrated the effect of increased light upon the growth, flowering, and fruiting of plants. Similarly, Rowan's (1925) experiments with slate-colored juncos and the work of numerous subsequent investigators showed, at least in some temperate zone species of migratory birds, increasing periods of daylight triggered sex organs to develop, fat to be deposited, and migration restlessness to begin (King and Farner, 1963). When these conditions develop to a certain level, the bird enters a "disposition to migrate" and takes off for its breeding or wintering grounds. There is reason to believe certain weather conditions influence the actual time of departure and especially the rate of progress to the breeding area.

 This explanation of the stimulus for migration may apply very broadly to birds that winter in temperate parts of the world and nest in the same hemisphere but fails in those birds wintering in the tropics, where little change in length of day occurs and even decreases during the spring in regions south of the Equator. It might be asked: "If the lengthening day is the stimulating factor, why should our summer birds, wintering in the tropics, ever start north?" In addition, if daylength influences when birds are stimulated to migrate, why should they not all leave the same locality at the same time? Or, if weather controls the departure of birds from a given area, should not all the migrants leave when conditions are optimal and refrain from departing when conditions are not so? Actually, the conditions that place a bird in a disposition to migrate are probably the result of a combination of factors affecting different species differently. Thus not all birds arrive at this condition at the same time.

 It has been demonstrated experimentally that Andean sparrows, resident in equatorial regions, come into breeding condition twice annually entirely independent of changing light periods (Miller 1963); evidently the breeding cycle is controlled by periodic internal stimuli. Probably northern migrants that winter in equatorial regions and beyond have their migratory urges controlled by similar rhythms or biological clocks. Also, no evidence suggests that the southward migration of birds is controlled by changing periods of light even among species such as white-crowned sparrows, for which this is a controlling factor in the spring. The fall stimulus is probably an innate cyclic occurrence brought on by a biological mechanism of unknown nature (King, Barker, and Farner 1963).

 It is pertinent to point out that the migratory instinct appears to be more or less transitory and not persistent over an extended period. Migratory birds may be delayed en route, either by natural conditions such as unusually abundant food supplies or forcibly by man. If detained until the end of the migratory season, migrants may not attempt to finish the journey because they apparently lose the migratory impulse. In the fall and early winter of 1929, abundant food and open water caused an unusual number of mallards to arrest their migration and remain in western Montana and northern Idaho. Later, however, when a heavy snowfall with subzero temperatures suddenly cut off the food supply, great numbers of the birds subsequently starved to death; a flight of a few hours could have carried them to a region of open water and abundant food.


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