Migration of Birds

Perils of Migration

The migration season is full of peril for birds. Untold thousands of smaller migrants are destroyed each year by storms and attacks by predatory animals. These mortality factors, and others, help keep bird populations in check. Perils of migration are among these causes.

Of all the hazards confronting birds in migration, particularly the smaller species, storms are the most dangerous. Birds that cross broad stretches of water can be blown off course by a storm, become exhausted, and fall into the waves. Such a catastrophe was once seen from the deck of a vessel in the Gulf of Mexico, 30 miles off the mouth of the Mississippi River. Great numbers of migrating birds, chiefly warblers, were nearing land after having accomplished nearly 95 percent of their long flight when, caught by a "norther" against which they were unable to make headway, hundreds were forced into the waters of the Gulf and drowned. A sudden drop in temperature accompanied by a snowfall can cause a similar affect.

Aerial Obstructions
Lighthouses, tall buildings, monuments, television towers, and other aerial obstructions have been responsible for destruction of migratory birds. Bright beams of lights on buildings and airport ceilometers have a powerful attraction for nocturnal air travelers that may be likened to the fascination for lights exhibited by many insects, particularly night-flying moths. The attraction is most noticeable on foggy nights when the rays have a dazzling effect that not only lures the birds but confuses them and causes their death by collision against high structures. The fixed, white, stationary light located 180 feet above sea level at Ponce de Leon Inlet (formerly Mosquito Inlet), Florida, has caused great destruction of bird life even though the lens is shielded by wire netting. Two other lighthouses at the southern end of Florida, Sombrero Key and Fowey Rocks, have been the cause of a great number of bird tragedies, while heavy mortality has been noted also at some of the lights on the Great Lakes and on the coast of Quebec. Fixed white lights seem to be most attractive to birds; lighthouses equipped with flashing or red lights do not have the same attraction.

 For many years in Washington, D.C., the illuminated Washington Monument, towering more than 555 feet into the air, caused destruction of large numbers of small birds. Batteries of brilliant floodlights grouped on all four sides about the base illuminate the Monument so brilliantly, airplane pilots noticed that it could be seen for 40 miles on a clear night. It is certain there is an extensive area of illumination, and on dark nights with gusty, northerly winds, nocturnal migrants seem to fly at lower altitudes and are attacted to the Monument. As they mill about the shaft, they are dashed against it by eddies of wind, and hundreds have been killed in a single night. In September 1948, bird students were startled by news of the wholesale destruction of common yellowthroats, American redstarts, ovenbirds, and others against the 1,250-foot-high Empire State Building in New York City, the 491-foot-high Philadelphia Saving Fund Society Building in Philadelphia, and the 450-foot-high WBAL radio tower in Baltimore. In New York, the birds continued to crash into the Empire State Building for 6 hours.

 More recently, the television tower has become the chief hazard. These structures are so tall, sometimes over 1,000 feet, they present more of a menace than buildings or lighthouses. Their blinking lights cause passing migrants to blunder into guy wires or the tower itself while milling around like moths about a flame. Numerous instances (e.g. Stoddard and Norris 1967) throughout the U.S. indicate this peril to migration is widespread. The lethal qualities of airport ceilometers have been effectively modified by conversion to intermittent or rotating beams.

Both soaring and sailing birds are so proficient in aerial transportation that only recently have the principles been understood and imitated by aircraft pilots. The use of ascending air currents, employed by all soaring birds and easily demonstrated by observing gulls glide hour after hour along the windward side of a ship, are now utilized by man in his operation of gliders. Moreover, the whole structure of a bird makes it the most perfect machine for extensive flight the world has ever known. Hollow, air-filled bones, together with feathers, the lightest and toughest material known for flight, have evolved in combination to produce a perfect flying machine.

 Mere consideration of a bird's economy of fuel or energy also is enlightening. The golden plover probably travels over a 2,400-mile oceanic route from Nova Scotia to South America in about 48 hours of continous flight. This is accomplished with the consumption of less than 2 ounces of body fat (fuel). In contrast, to be just as efficient in operation, a 1,000-pound airplane would consume only a single pint of fuel in a 20-mile flight rather than the gallon usually required. Similarly, the tiny ruby-throated hummingbird weighing approximately 4 grams, crosses the Gulf of Mexico in a single flight of more than 500 miles while consuming less than 1 gram of fat.

 One might expect the exertion incident to long migratory flights would result in arrival of migrants at their destination near a state of exhaustion. This is usually not the case. Birds that have recently arrived from a protracted flight over land or sea sometimes show evidences of being tired, but their condition is far from being in a state of emaciation or exhaustion. The popular notion birds find long ocean flights so excessively wearisome that they sink exhausted when terra firma is reached generally does not coincide with the facts.

 The truth is, even small landbirds are so little exhausted by ocean voyages, they not only cross the Gulf of Mexico at its widest point but may even proceed without pause many miles inland before stopping. The sore, considered such a weak flyer that at least one writer was led to infer most of its migration was made on foot, has one of the longest migration routes of any member of the rail family and even crosses the wide reaches of the Caribbean Sea. Observations indicate that under favorable conditions birds can fly when and where they please and the distance covered in a single flight is governed chiefly by the amount of stored fat. Exhaustion, except as the result of unusual factors such as strong adverse winds, cannot be said to be an important peril of migration. 

Previous Section -- Influence of Topography
Return to Contents
Next Section -- Routes of Migration