Thumbnail image: Sam Zhang/Macaulay Library
[Lisa Kopp] Hi, everyone. Welcome to today’s webinar. We are excited to have you here. We are just one minute away from the top of the hour. We’re going to be getting started in just a minute. Thank you all for joining us today. We’re really excited to be kicking off our virtual migration celebration series with this Ask an Ornithologist webinar. So just going to give one minute to let people cycle in. And then we will hopefully answer many of your questions that you have. Hi, Kevin.
[Kevin McGowan] Hi, Lisa.
[Lisa Kopp] How are you doing today?
[Kevin McGowan] Oh, pretty good.
[Lisa Kopp] Good.
[Kevin McGowan] Good. Feeling good to talk about birds.
[Lisa Kopp] Right, right. All right, so it is noon up here in Ithaca, New York. So I can go ahead and get things going. Like I said, welcome to today’s webinar from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, where we’re going to answer bird questions as Kevin said. Pretty fun.
So my name is Lisa Kopp. And I’m on the visitor center team at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. And I’ll be the moderator today, hoping to pass along the questions that you all have to Kevin. And joining us is Kevin McGowan. Thanks, Kevin. We’re going to introduce Kevin in just a second. I’m going to run through a couple of important announcements.
So the first is that this webinar is hosted by the Lab of Ornithology, which is located in Ithaca, New York. We are a part of Cornell University. So I want to read the land acknowledgments, acknowledging the Indigenous people as the original inhabitants of this area. Cornell University is located on the traditional homelands of the Guyohkohnyo, the Cayuga Nation.
The Guyohkohnyo are members of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, an alliance of six sovereign nations with a historic and contemporary presence on this land. The Confederacy precedes the establishment of Cornell University New York State and the United States of America. We acknowledge the painful history of Guyohkohnyo dispossession and honor the ongoing connection of Guyohkohnyo people, past, and present, to these lands and waters.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, we are home to a community of researchers, supporters from all around the world who appreciate birds and biodiversity and the integral role that they play in our ecosystem. So our mission is to advance leading edge research, education, and citizen science that helps solve some of our pressing conservation challenges.
A couple of tech notes really quickly for our audience. So we have closed captioning available if you are tuning in via Zoom. If you’d like to turn captions on or off, please find the Captions button at the bottom of your screen. If you’re watching on a personal– or on a desktop computer, there should be three little buttons at the bottom of your screen. And you should be able to either hide or show subtitles.
Also, for those of you on Zoom, we’re going to be using the Q&A feature today pretty heavily since this is an Ask an Ornithologist. We did get some really great questions submitted via the registration form. So we’re going to kick things off with that. But we’re also going to use that Q&A as a way for you to be able to answer your questions I have an amazing behind-the-scenes team helping out today, who are also going to be helping to answer your questions. So we’re going to do our very best to get to as many as we possibly can.
And if you are on Facebook, welcome. We see you tuning in live on Facebook. We’re also going to be answering your questions. So we have another wonderful colleague who’s going to be monitoring the Facebook Comment Section and relaying those questions to me so that I can have you all participate too.
We’re only going to be using the chat for– the Zoom chat for technical support. So if you’re having issues with sound or video or if something seems off on our end, the chat is a great way to let us know. You can wave a flag virtually. So I think that those are all of my important notes. So we can get started.
And like I said, today’s a little different. If you’ve attended webinars with us at the Lab before, we often do a short presentation or a demonstration. And today really is what we hear from people that they want, which is a way to get their pressing bird questions answered. And there is no better person at the Lab of Ornithology to do that than Kevin McGowan. So thank you, Kevin, for being here today. This is, what, our third Ask an Ornithologist webinar we’ve done in the past couple of months? [LAUGHS]
[Kevin McGowan] Yeah, something like that.
[Lisa Kopp] And the questions just keep coming. Like, we could probably do these every week. And they wouldn’t run out. So can you tell us a little bit about you, Kevin, and your background and why you are the go-to person that we keep asking to do these webinars for us?
[Kevin McGowan] Yeah, I’m a professional ornithologist. I’ve been interested in birds my entire life ever since I was born, I think. And actually did get a– I got a PhD working on Florida scrub jay behavior in the University of South Florida. And then I moved up here to Cornell to be the curator of Bird and Mammal Collections and then gradually moved over into the education department, and which has eventually evolved into the Center for– what are we? The Center for–
[Lisa Kopp] Public Engagement in Science and Nature.
[Kevin McGowan] Thank you. Yeah, that’s what we do. And I have been interested– I’m a total bird man. And then people are interested in birds. Some of them are just birders. Some of them are interested in knowing how the pieces fit together. And I like all of it. I like behavior. I like evolution published on zooarcheology with bird remains in Central Turkey. And just anything bird is cool with me. And so I– that’s why I like being here. I like thinking about a broad variety of topics. And I’m just as I say, an enthusiastic bird man.
[Lisa Kopp] Great, well, I think many of us here are today. So we’re in good company. So part of why we asked you to do this webinar is that right now is an important time of year for a lot of birds. And this event is actually the first of our kicking off a big two weeks of programming for us called Migration Celebration.
So this is a great time of year in the Northern Hemisphere because there are a bunch of birds that are about to be on the move. And so can you talk a little bit about, just leveling the playing field so we can all be on the same page, what is migration, and why does it happen?
[Kevin McGowan] Well, migration is movement from one place to another place for various reasons. And it almost always involves food. There’s either food or breeding opportunities. And with bird migration, it’s mostly about food. So birds migrate up into the Arctic in the spring because there’s this bloom of insects and plants. There’s just a huge bonanza of food. But it runs out. And it gets cold. And so cold can be a factor temperature, can be a factor. But it’s usually based on food and how those birds can find food.
And the thing about birds is they fly. And so it’s easier for them to migrate than it is for a lot of other things. I mean, mammals migrate. Caribou migrate. The wildebeest herds in the Eastern African plains, they migrate pretty good distances on a regular basis just like birds do. But birds can get farther faster. And so they can do some crazy amazing things that we’ll talk about, if you want.
But it’s all about finding the things you need to do, the things you need to do right then. And for breeding, that means lots of protein to build the baby. For overwintering, an adult doesn’t need that much protein. And so they can go someplace where it’s easier food and easier to find. So it’s all about food and moving around to get what you need when you need it.
[Lisa Kopp] So we have a great follow-up question to that in the Q&A. [? Niren ?] asks, “How do birds know where to go for food and when?” [LAUGHS]
[Kevin McGowan] Well, a lot of it’s been selected for it. It’s in their genes. So a lot of birds have an innate sense of, I need to at this time when all of this stuff is happening when the days are changing. I need to get out of here and go that way, which is south and do that for a long enough period of time. And so that’s the basic beginnings for this, for birds is that they have a genetic component in their behavior that makes them want to do that at the right time.
But then there’s a whole lot that goes into it after that. There’s a lot of learning that goes on. And for some birds, it’s like, oh, we go this way. And then they eventually get more efficient at it, learned landmarks to say, OK, yeah, that big body of water, I remember that. We need to do something there. And so it’s in the genes. But there’s a lot of learning that goes on for a lot of species too.
[Lisa Kopp] And another great question in the Q&A from Terry. “Do birds use different cues to migrate in the fall versus the spring?” Since fall is more prolonged and spring is more condensed, are they are they learning differently for the different seasons?
[Kevin McGowan] Well, it’s an interesting question. And I have to say the basic trigger for when birds migrate, most birds migrate– think of the long-distance migrants. It’s change in daylight length, not the length– not how long the day is or what the change is from yesterday. So if you took a bird and you gave it the day length of the peak migration and you get to them in the summer and just put it inside and made the day that long, nothing happens. But if you change the daylight– it’s a change from day to day to day.
And so both in the spring and the fall, the change in daylight has an effect on the bird’s internal system. And so it causes them to secrete some hormones and to develop. In the spring, they’re developing their reproductive tract. Now, they’re regressing. They’re resorbing their reproductive tracts. So the male’s testes go from that to that. And the female’s ovary shrinks down as well. Because if you don’t need it, you don’t want to carry it around while you’re flying. So they get rid of all that kind of stuff.
Now, the things that trigger which way they go and when exactly they do it, there are probably slightly different things. But they’re paying attention to the weather. And they’re paying attention to the presence or absence of certain foods. And so if they’re relying on berries and the berries are all gone, then that’s like, oops, maybe we better go. Whereas on the spring, it’s just like, oh, we find some berries. That’s good.
And the basic mechanisms are pretty much the same. But the single things that actually make them go probably are little [INAUDIBLE].
[Lisa Kopp] You’ve mentioned weather a couple of times. So we got a few questions pre-submitted about people who live in colder climates like us up in Ithaca, New York. There are plenty of birds that stick around in these colder climates. And how much of weather is a factor? And, obviously, it varies across species. Are there any rules or norms you can make assumptions about based on size or diet or anything based on whether a bird sticks around a colder climate or not?
[Kevin McGowan] Sure. And yeah. Birds do stick around, even up above the Arctic Circle. There are ptarmigan that spend the winter up there. They’re grouse-like birds. They turn all white, white as snow in the winter. And they’re brown in the summer, and then they turn white. And they can find what they need all year long. So they don’t need to go anywhere.
But for most birds, that’s not the case. And so, just to give an example, part of it is how the bird finds its food or it catches its food, the lifestyle of the bird, that plays a role.
So let me just say, in the boreal forest of Canada, all the birds there are eating insects because there’s so many mosquitoes and flies and all of that. It’s a great place to be an insectivore, an insect-eating bird.
But different birds catch their insects different. So you take a flycatcher, like yellow bellied flycatcher. And it, by– as you might know, by his name, it flies out and gets flying insects, or insects that are climbing around on leaves, and things like that.
So in the winter that’s not going to work so well. Because there are no flying insects after the snow falls. And there are no moving insects. So they have to go somewhere else.
But you take a chickadee, of black capped chickadee that lives in the same forest. And it gets its food very differently, that it picks things off of the bark or it picks it out of crevices. And it can actually spend the winter eating a few seeds here and there, but a lot of insects, like insect eggs, and insect larvae that are trying to overwinter.
And they’re picking tiny, tiny little things off of the bark and in crevices in the bark. And it doesn’t seem like there could be that many insect eggs out there. But apparently there are. And so, it can– that whole insect overwintering strategies leaves enough protein behind that a host of different birds can find enough to spend the winter, even in cold places like Ithaca without going.
[Lisa Kopp] So on the same food theme, we’re getting a lot of questions about the stops along the route. So as, of course, things are going to vary species to species.
But are there any general rules about birds that stop along number of places? What are they doing when they’re stopping? Are they resting? Are they eating? Do they do they fuel up and then they leave? Are there patterns to that?
[Kevin McGowan] Sure. And the first thing is, birds that are going to fly a long way, they get as fat as they possibly can before they start the journey. Because fat is the fuel of migration. And the birds are very efficient users of fat. But they’ve got to have fat.
And some birds get incredibly fat, I mean, put on half their body weight or more. I skinned a upland Sandpiper once. And I remember, once I took the body fat off, it’s a third of the body weight was just the fat under the skin. And they need that because they travel long, long distances.
Some birds can take it slowly and stop and eat every day before they take off. A lot of them are traveling at night. They travel at night, and eat and rest by day. And so, they can do it in multiple bits.
Some birds are incredible in making almost unbelievable journeys on one single flight, like the champion is bar-tailed godwit flying from Alaska to New Zealand in one shot on multiple days. And unbelievable.
[Lisa Kopp] Wow.
[Kevin McGowan] So they fatten in one place, and then that’s all they do. But when they’re coming back from New Zealand to Western Alaska, they fly– they make one not so long shot going to China. And then they sit there and they fatten up all over again and then go on.
And so, a lot of birds have these– even the very long distance travelers, have these important rest stops, as you say, what we call migratory stopover locations that are extraordinarily important for the birds. Because they run out of gas. Like they’ve run out of fat.
And so, the red knots that travel from the Arctic down to Southern and South America. They get really, really fat. But then make it up from Argentina up to the United States, the East Coast of the United States. And then, they’re done. It’s gone from fat being 40% of their body weight to 3% of their body weight or something like that. And so they’ve got they still have a long way to go.
And so, this is one of the phenomena that people know about. A lot of people know this, this is the stopover in [INAUDIBLE] in New Jersey and Delaware, where the horseshoe crabs, it’s time that the horseshoe crabs are coming to shore to nest in the– put their eggs in the sand up in the beach. And just millions and millions of horseshoe crab eggs.
And the migratory shorebirds like red knots just feeds on that. And it is really important, because again, they’re going from nothing, 3% body fat to trying to get back up to 40 so they can make it all the way up into northern Canada and to Green.
And so, those are dramatic stopovers. But there are a lot of places where birds do the same kind of thing going both directions. So here in the spring, the southern shore of Lake Ontario in New York, that area around Rochester and Braddock Bay and places like that, those are important stopovers.
Because the birds come up. And they’ve come across– a lot of them have come across the Gulf of Mexico. And they’re flying, and they’re going, and they come to another lake they can a body of water they can’t see over. And they think, ooh, the last time that hurt. I think I need to stop and get some more food before I go on try to do that again. And they do.
And so, and it’s different. Some individuals don’t stop very long. It’s like, no, no, I can do it. But then, usually it’s like the juveniles, the first-year birds that haven’t done this before, they’ll stick around longer on the southern end of the lake before they try to fly.
[Lisa Kopp] So again, food-based, lots of questions about feeding birds. So related, if we’ve got feeders all up and down a migratory route, will that affect birds’ migration? Will it– we’ve got quite a few questions here about if we leave our feeders out, will birds that should move on not move on?
And we’ll get into the hummingbirds later, because we’ve gotten so many questions about hummingbirds especially. But just general feeder birds, does feeding birds help or hurt them along their migration patterns?
[Kevin McGowan] For most species, it’s not really much of a big deal. Because most of the birds that come to your feeders are– most of them are residents. So the bulk of them in most places are resident birds. And then, maybe helping them a little. There’s studies that show that, yes, there’s an effect. But it’s not as big as you might suspect.
And the birds do not specialize on the feeder. So even though the chickadees are coming and eating your sunflower seeds all the time, they’re still going out and finding those little insect eggs and things like that in the crevices of the bark because it’s better food. Sunflower seeds are like Big Macs and French fries. They’re just easy and lots of calories, that’s what they do.
So by and large, most of the bird-feeding that people do really doesn’t have a huge effect on most of the migrating birds. I don’t think it’ll keep them there, but I’d say, keep doing it. But don’t think that you’re making or breaking the success of many birds’ individual trips. Just be there as a– cheer them on.
[Lisa Kopp] [LAUGHS]
[Kevin McGowan] Go birds. We love you. You’re number one, keep going.
[Lisa Kopp] Bird cheerleaders.
[Kevin McGowan] Yeah, absolutely. I’m total bird cheerleader. I’ve been that all my life.
[Lisa Kopp] So hummingbirds. We had so many questions about hummingbirds, about feeding hummingbirds, how late might you want to keep hummingbird feeders out, a couple of those were East Coast, northeast focused. And then quite a few questions about hummingbird pairs, females or males leaving and females staying. So you want to talk a little about hummingbirds? Because they’re on people’s minds right now.
[Kevin McGowan] Sure. And most of the questions, you say coming from the Eastern Northeastern United States, Canada we’re talking about one species of hummingbird. That’s a ruby-throated hummingbird.
[Lisa Kopp] Yes.
[Kevin McGowan] And so it’s easier to talk about a specific species than it is to generalize about a bunch. But I will say that hummingbirds do use bird feeders. They also are again, they’re getting sugar water from your bird feeder. When they’re raising young, it’s all about the insects. And they feed them a slurry of insects and nectar.
So let’s see, how to parse this. Because there are several points here. Let me go to the last thing you asked about the different– male and female doing different things. Yes, they definitely do different things. Their timing is different. Many, many birds have different strategies for males and females.
And for species like hummingbirds, where the male does no parental care, that the male displays. That’s all he does. He is therefore [INAUDIBLE]. He’s just displaying to the female to hope that she’ll copulate with him. And then she goes off, and builds a nest, and produces eggs, and all of that, and then takes care of the young. So you might suspect that if she still got business to do. She needs to stay there for a while.
But the males, they don’t. Because it’s like, the chances of fathering any more young are low. And so it’s like, meh, I’m out of here. I’ll go take it where– because I know these flowers are going to quit, and while they’re starting to quit, so let’s go. And so the males go. And then the females.
And actually, in a lot of species too, the juveniles, it’s almost like they don’t know what they’re doing. And it’s like, hey, where’d everybody go? Parents have figured this out. And it’s like, oh, I don’t see anybody. And there’s not much food now. Maybe I’ll go.
And so, this is true in shorebirds, this is true in blackbirds, and it’s true in that they’re different juveniles and adults. And the two different sexes often have different strategies for migrating, different timing, some of them it’s different routes. So it’s kind of interesting.
[Lisa Kopp] Yeah. That’s so– I mean, some of this we also don’t have answers to, right?
[Kevin McGowan] Yeah.
[Lisa Kopp] Yeah. We’re getting a couple of questions about how do juveniles know where to go or when to go and how do they so often end up in the same location as the parents or end up back in the same location that they had been at last year.
[Kevin McGowan] Yeah. Well, it’s an interesting thing. And I can tell you a couple of stories that I know from other people’s work using satellite transmitters. So we used to put bands on birds. And then, if you hope somebody found a band and read the number and told the banding office. And then you could– you’d find out where a bird went.
Well, that gives them a million bands for every five returns, something like that. We found a lot of interesting stuff. But man, it was an awful lot of work and pretty frustrating. When they first started doing radio transmitters, that helped with their limited distance to simple radios. And then satellite is just an amazing thing.
I remember– but so, the satellite tracker tracks the bird wherever it goes in the world. And they’re expensive. And they used to be fairly bulky so you can only put them on big birds but then the data they provide is just unbelievable. And I remember the very first talk I went to, a professional meeting, with somebody who was using these satellite tags. And he was– Ken Meier was working with swallowtail kites in Florida.
And the thing was that swallowtail kites nest in Florida. But then they go south and disappear. And south of here, south in Central America and into South America, there are resident populations of them. Now, our birds would just go disappear. Because every year, every day of the year, you can see it that swallowtail kite in Costa Rica or in Brazil. And so, we didn’t know where they were, where they were going. And they were thinking maybe the Western Amazon.
So they got money to put some satellite tags on these birds, on some juveniles, and at least one breeding bird. They had a bird, a female that they put a satellite tag on, and a juvenile of hers in her nest. And just as we’ve said before, what they saw was that the adults all left a month before the juveniles started going. And the juveniles didn’t take the straightest path like the adults did.
The adults all went. They also did different things. Some of them went across Cuba and down, and other ones were flying across through the other islands. And some of them went over to the Yucatan. And so they wandered their way down until they were on the west side of the Andes in Bolivia. And then the adults hung out for a bit. And they knew where they were going because they had done it before. And so they were pretty efficient in getting there.
But the juveniles eventually found their way [INAUDIBLE] after the adults did. And this radial tracked pair, the mother and offspring, they went over– they all went through this tiny single pass in Bolivia. The mother and the offspring went over on the same day. They had a month difference in departure. And somehow that juvenile found the mother and went over the pass together.
And I’m sitting in the audience thinking, we now have an answer to a question we didn’t know how to ask or didn’t know why to ask. And it’s like, how on Earth could they do that? And that’s been my experience with the satellite transmitter stuff is it gives us really good answers to some questions but just raises even more.
The other thing let me say, I was talking about how juveniles do it. The other study was that the New York Department of Environmental Conservation put some satellite transmitters on loons. And what they found with the adults was the adults left first and they went straight to the ocean, to the Atlantic Ocean.
And the juveniles went a little bit later, went south. And they stayed on a lake. They would stop on [INAUDIBLE] lake or something like that till it froze up. And then they had to move south to another lake till it froze up. And then they moved south till they hit the ocean, and then they were in the ocean. And then next year when they flew back, they flew straight to the ocean. That’s it.
[Lisa Kopp] They realized. They’re like, this is a lot better.
[Kevin McGowan] Yeah. So it’s not so much they’re different strategies. Well, I mean they are different strategies. But it was a question of experience for these birds to say, yeah, let’s head straight to Jersey and we’ll be done with the it.
[Lisa Kopp] Wow. Another strategy that I wanted to talk about was when birds migrate in a 24 hour cycle. Is there a particular time of day or time of night that there’s going to be a lot of migratory action happening?
[Kevin McGowan] Absolutely. And it depends on the species. So a lot of people don’t know that most birds migrate at night. They just disappear overnight. And literally you can be watching migrants and it’s like, oh, it’s at Soccer Woods, and oh, look at there are 10 species of warblers and three [INAUDIBLE] or whatever.
And then there’s a good weather movement. And you come the next day and they’re gone. They’re just gone. It’s like they just they flew away at night, because they did. And most birds do migrate at night. A lot of birds migrate during the day.
And things that soar a lot, like vultures and hawks, the best time to do the soaring migration where you don’t have to work as hard, you’re just circling around up, they follow the rising hot air in the day, and then gravity takes you a bunch of miles until you have to find another place to find an upward.
And that they don’t do at night. Because the sun is heating up the ground, which causes the air near the ground to get hot. And it starts to rise, usually as a spiral. And the birds take advantage of that. And they’ll go from rising spiral to rising spiral wherever the sun is heating up the ground. And you can’t do that.
So people ask, well, why migrate at night? And there have been a lot of interesting ideas and some plausible that there are no predators at night or fewer that are going to get you. It’s cooler and they’re generating a lot of heat by constant flapping. Because it’s the constant flapping birds that mostly migrate. And all of that kind of makes some sense.
But something happened just recently that I think answers a lot of the question, is that it turns out that birds can detect the magnetic fields of the Earth and use that as more than just a compass but like a map, a grid that they can follow to fly wherever they want to and get a map out of that.
And so, we figured that out that they actually are doing that. But we didn’t know how they do that. And there was some speculation about there were these cells that contain iron magnetite in the bills of the birds. And people thought that was it.
But it turns out that was just a red herring. That was a false lead. And what they really do is they use a special kind of visual pigment that is sensitive to– this is where you say the word, where quantum mechanics comes in. And usually when somebody says quantum mechanics, it’s like, I know I’m not going to understand.
[Lisa Kopp] [LAUGHS]
[Kevin McGowan] But what happens is, is that they’re actually using the ocular nerve to see magnetic fields. And when the first time I heard that it’s like, well, that’s great, but how does that overcome all the visual light? And I thought, that must be why they migrate at night. Because there’s no distraction from the other wavelengths. And it turns out that that’s pretty much what people think right now.
And I talked to some researcher from Germany whose name I forget who is doing some amazing stuff with these quantum physics thing. So basically what happens is, if there’s a little bit of light– they can’t do it in the complete dark. There has to be just enough light to knock an electron off this molecule of the– and put it into– not knock it away, but get it out enough that it gets into a quantum state.
And then somehow, those electrons in the quantum state are sensitive to the magnetic fields. And so, they essentially can see the magnetic field. But they need a little bit of light.
And so this guy was saying– so it’s kind of like the rod cone break. I don’t know if you know when we’re using cones in our eyes. The one type of cell that’s they see color. And then we have the rods which are the basic they are just black and white. But they’re very sensitive to light.
So when you’re in a dark room and you can’t see colors, what is it? What color is it? I don’t know. It’s gray. So it’s shades of gray. And that’s when you’re using rods.
But as light gets higher and higher, it’s what we call the rod cone break, where you suddenly switch over to using the other one, whatever is appropriate. More light, then you switch over to color because you can get more information. Or if you’re going the other way, then what we say your eye is getting adjusted to the dark. That’s where the rod cone break is.
And apparently, it’s the same kind of thing with these molecules. That there’s an optimum point where the color and stuff disappears. They don’t see colored light anymore. And they can see that magnetic field at that point.
But again, they still need a little bit of light to knock the electron off. And this guy was suggesting that actually lighted highways were probably a good thing for birds. We can talk a little bit about light. We have to talk about light–
[Lisa Kopp] Yep.
[Kevin McGowan] –association with birds. But it’s tiny little bit of human light actually, he said that it appears that some birds actually follow the highways because it’s just enough of a light to make their magnetic fields look really big so they know where they’re going.
[Lisa Kopp] That is wild.
[Kevin McGowan] It’s wild.
[Lisa Kopp] [LAUGHS]
[Kevin McGowan] I’ve known that birds and biology was just amazing my entire life, just finding more and more. But now, it’s like, whoa. This is wilder than I ever dreamed of.
[Lisa Kopp] Yeah. So do you want to talk about light now? And should we get into BirdCast and lights out a little bit maybe?
[Kevin McGowan] Yeah. So birds do use light to orient. Even before there were lights that we’ve put into the world, they’ve always been using– and even on the darkest night, the sky’s lighter than the ground.
So you can always tell which way is up because it’s like, which way– where am I going here? It’s like, that’s darkest and that’s lighter. So I need to stay up into that and stay away from the dark. And that’s how moths, and birds, and turtles, and all of that– they’ve been using that simple up and down thing for millions and millions [INAUDIBLE]. And it worked really well.
But now we brought artificial light into play. And you know the moths are still saying, go to the light. Go to the light. Go to the light. And that’s the little mantra in their little brains is, light is good. Follow the light. Follow the light.
And that doesn’t work anymore. And that’s why moths come to a flame and just circle it, because they’re totally confused. Because it’s not following– they’re following the rules, but the rules aren’t helping.
And birds are the same way. As the birds orient to lights, they’re using the lights, again of the moon and the stars. We know they pay attention to the stars and their motions, and the motion of the moon and the sun. So it’s written into their how-to manual to migrate to incorporate those lights. And that, again, is really bad when you have artificial lights.
And these birds can become so confused. That they come in close to the bright lights and don’t know which way is up. They don’t know what’s going on. And they’re just circling and circling for a long time just totally confused totally messed up. And a lot of birds die from that. They just exhaust themselves. And remember, they’re trying to make a long journey. And every bit of fat you waste keeps you from getting further and further on your journey.
So we do– there are a lot of people that are getting concerned about this. And big cities are a real big problem. Because not only do they have lights, they have a lot of glass that the birds can’t quite figure out what it is. A lot of birds strike windows on migration, just millions of birds that run into glass.
And people are finally realizing that oh, the light is a problem. And there are campaigns in different things that are trying to get people to know, and we haven’t talked about how weather plays into this. But there are good nights for flying and bad nights for flying.
And on the good nights for flying people are trying to say, OK, it’s going to be a big migration tonight. Can all you guys in Houston and in Chicago turn your lights out that aren’t necessary? Because a lot of these buildings are just lit up all the time. They don’t need to be that. And they can cut the lights. Then they won’t confuse the birds and it’ll help the birds get on their way.
And it was– just say a couple of things. BirdCast, we have a program at Cornell that if you want to know what’s it going to be like in my area, how many birds are you going to fly tonight, you can go to BirdCast and look at what’s going on in your area and see if it’s there. It’s a prediction based on the weather models and the current weather patterns of how many birds are going to be flying.
So we have the information. We have a place where you can look at it. And if people can realize, oh, well, we should turn out lights tonight because it’s going to be a big, big bird movement.
So a lot of interesting things here. And I think that the guys will put in the Q&A the links to BirdCast and to lights out, and some programs like that are people are trying to– because again, especially in big cities birds get confused.
We had a– you can look on all our birds, there’s a talk about the tribute in light, for instance, yesterday was September 11. They used to do with giant– maybe still do in New York City– with these giant searchlights. And the birds would get confused. And they’d see the searchlights and, again, get caught up in it.
And so, there’s a program with a bunch of birders with one of our people from the Port of New York City Audubon that would go and say, OK, there’s a big huge number of birds that are getting entrained in the lights right now. Let’s turn them off for two minutes and let the birds go on their way. So they would turn them off and then turn them on again.
And yeah, it was an interesting thing that people did notice. And again, on the small scale it’s like, wow. How come that messes up these migrants so much? And again, it’s just because they’re programmed to use environmental cues that we’re messing up for them right now.
[Lisa Kopp] Yeah.
[Kevin McGowan] Don’t know how to deal with it. And so, a lot of us, people are concerned, are trying to deal with it and to decrease the damage that that’s being done to the birds by us unintentionally.
[Lisa Kopp] I put in the chat links to the BirdCast website, but also a link to a past webinar that we did with the BirdCast team that does a great overview of what BirdCast is, what they do. They use weather tracking systems to track migration. And I saw on the Q&A someone asked if it’s available in Canada. The answer is, not yet. I know that they’re hoping to expand.
[Kevin McGowan] Yeah.
[Lisa Kopp] It’s still just the US right now. But that will–
[Kevin McGowan] Yeah, unfortunately, that’s the difference between the– it’s the whole weather radar system. And they’re regulated differently in the two countries. So it’s unfortunate not to have Canada. Because they just disappear when they get over there.
[Lisa Kopp] Right.
[Kevin McGowan] We know that’s not true. So we’re really, really hoping to get that incorporated as soon as possible.
[Lisa Kopp] Yeah. So BirdCast is such an incredible resource and tool. And there’s so much helpful information about their lights out campaign. And they’ve been seeing some really great strides recently in big cities. I know Chicago and Houston especially seem to be picking up this effort of saving birds during high migration times based on BirdCast information.
So if you haven’t explored BirdCast, I’d highly recommend it to people interested in learning about migration and then learning about ways to potentially help birds during migration. And just to plug one other thing in, next week we have a great webinar called Helping Birds on Their Way. So it’s all about ways that you can help birds during migration season.
So there’ll be plenty of time in that webinar for Q&A too. And I and I put the link in the chat to the website where you can register for that webinar. So lots of chances to learn more about helping birds this time of year.
Kevin, I wanted to ask a couple more questions about some of these incredible mysteries around migration.
[Kevin McGowan] Yeah. Before we–
[Lisa Kopp] Oh, yeah.
[Kevin McGowan] Before we go into that, I wanted to add one other piece that we– I know it’s in the questions somewhere. But depending on how we go, I may not get to it. But it’s involved with what we were just talking about. And that is that birds cue in on the weather. And they use the weather to their advantage.
If the winds– if they’re trying to fly south and the winds are out of the south. They’ll just sit tight and feed a little bit more. But they’re waiting for a big cold front from the northwest to basically bird surf the winds aloft. But they’re not gliding with it like the raptors and things do. But they’re actually taking advantage of the wind going in the right direction. And they wait until it gets to be the right place.
So these big rainstorms that come through or the fronts out of the Northwest are coming mostly from the north, that’s just go for these birds. And that’s why the BirdCast guys can make predictions is because they know what the weather is they know the weather the birds like. And then, they can make an accurate forecast. So again, think about birds surfing the winds. And so, if a strong winds come, they love that. It’s going in their direction.
[Lisa Kopp] Right. There’s a lot of questions– oh no, no. That’s really helpful. Because there were lots of questions about whether and how birds either use it or don’t use it. If it’s rainy, do birds migrate, or do they just try to wait it out and so they’re not waterlogged as they’re flying on.
[Kevin McGowan] Well, the thing that you’ll notice is on a rainy day where a rainstorm just came in, there are birds everywhere in the morning. Because they came in with those winds and then they drop down during the day.
And so, I remember that going in when I was in college. And it’s like, we were going to go birding. A friend and I were going to go birding in the morning. It’s like, oh, man, it’s just such a rainy day. I don’t know. And we get out there, and there are birds everywhere.
[Lisa Kopp] Yeah.
[Kevin McGowan] It’s like, oh my God, I remember vividly, there’s a Lincoln sparrow that just came in. It’s like, oh. And someway or sometime eventually it’s like, oh, yeah. Bad weather and birds, they have something in common.
[Lisa Kopp] Right. Well, and that’s another great– we often when we’ve done BirdCast webinars, we always get the question of, well, if this is tracking nighttime skies, how can I actually see those birds? And the answer is right there. They’re going to come down eventually that next morning.
And again, I put the link in the chat about the new BirdCast dashboard where you can actually enter in your region. I think it’s at the county level, to see what you might see right then and there, what level of migration is coming through your area. So really cool to be able to link up, thinking about weather, and thinking about the time of year. And then using this all this amazing data. So yeah.
[Kevin McGowan] It’s quite amazing.
[Lisa Kopp] It is. So one of the other questions that we’re getting is about birds that migrate in groups or in pairs. How are they traversing thousands of miles and all still sticking together? I mean, is that common among bird species or is it really particular to a couple of different species?
[Kevin McGowan] It is not common among many species for birds to travel together. In most birds, they’ll try to– you see flocks of birds. But in most flocks of birds like ducks, or blackbirds, or shorebirds, and things like that, they’re just are trying to be with another bird because there’s safety in numbers. And mostly there are not pairs together. And they’re mostly not in a juvenile [INAUDIBLE].
The exceptions are the geese and the cranes, where they do migrate together. And they do bring their kids along and teach them the route. That’s how those species actually learn their migratory routes by following their parents the first year or two.
And so, we can see family groups of snow geese [INAUDIBLE] that are hanging out within the big flock. But they’re trying to stay together. And it’s like, OK, kids, everybody stay together. We don’t want to get lost here. And most birds don’t care if they get lost. It’s like, hey, how long you been in this flock?
[Lisa Kopp] [LAUGHS]
[Kevin McGowan] Haven’t seen you for two weeks. Yeah, I’ve been here two weeks. So that’s most birds. But there are a few that do. And some of them we’re finding out things we probably wouldn’t have predicted. So there are birds in Europe called the European bee-eater. They eat bees. They’re related kind of to the kingfishers. But they’re in their own family of bee-eaters.
And they’re very social. That they nest in these big colonies. They nest like bank swallow’s holes in a cliff face, something like that. And they hang around. They’re cooperative breeders. Their offspring sometimes nest right next door. And if they fail, they go help their parents raise young again.
And there were some guys, I wish I could remember names better. But I don’t remember. They were working in Germany with some of the bee-eaters. And they were putting these, oh man, incredibly complicated not satellite tags but things that had altimeters in them and strain gauges.
So they knew how high they were flying, how fast they were flying, and as well as where they were. And they put them on a bunch of bee-eaters. And there was– I think, I don’t know if it was just a pair or if it was a pair of three birds. And somewhere they were– and they would go up and down together.
All three, they had tags on three of them. And they realized that they were going the same altitude, at the same place, at the same time, which indicated that the three of them were actually flying together. And as they got– I don’t know if it was over the Mediterranean or over the Sahara, which are two big steps, big deal for a bird to get over, one of them got lost.
And so, two of them went on down into Central Africa where they overwintered. And the other one went, I think the two went across the Sahara. And the other one had to go around the Sahara. But after three weeks, it ended up in exactly the same place where the other two were. And it’s like.
[Lisa Kopp] Oh my gosh. Yeah.
[Kevin McGowan] Do not know how you do that. Because they didn’t stay together. The two stayed together, they’re fine, they’re doing their thing. And you can understand that. But how the heck did that third bird find them? The world is an amazing place. And birds are freaking awesome.
[Lisa Kopp] Yeah. Wow. That is so crazy. Well, I would imagine that that kind of thing is probably more common as birds are having to navigate so many more obstacles, most of which are human-caused.
I’m seeing a lot of questions here about climate change and the things that are resulting from climate change, things like wildfires, things like severe storms, drought. Are there locations that birds used to have lots of resources and now they don’t? Do we have good information on how these things are starting to affect birds in their migratory patterns?
[Kevin McGowan] Yeah, I don’t know precise data on things. But it’s certainly logical. I mean, it’s common sense, they have to be. We know that when a bunch of habitat gets destroyed by putting up a mall or by burning– having it burn when it’s not supposed to burn, that you ruin that habitat and a bunch of birds depend on that. So that’s a bad thing. We know that.
And as you say, climate change is a factor and seems to be making some of these things worse. The birds– they’re crafty and they’ve been selected to be hardy and do their best to survive. But nobody survives an 85,000 square foot wildfire.
It just isn’t– and we know that from– there was a– in I think it was September of 2020, there was a big incidence of a lot of birds dying, being found dead in people’s backyards and things like that from all across the western– mostly in the Southwest Colorado, west into Arizona, but also up into to Washington and so.
And when people looked at these birds, they’re trying to figure out what’s going on? [INAUDIBLE] these wildfires? And people looked at the data and did find that, yes, there did seem to be some effect of the wildfires. And these were– a lot of them were migratory birds, like swallows and things like that.
And some of the suggestions were that they were being forced to migrate before they were really ready. So it’s like the fatten up, fatten up, fatten up. But it’s like, oh, heck let’s get out of here.
[Lisa Kopp] Yeah.
[Kevin McGowan] It’s drop the dinner and run because here comes a wildfire. And when a lot of these birds were looked at by the wildlife agencies, state wildlife agencies, the bulk of them were emaciated. They did not have enough food. And they where having trouble finding it after they left there where they were supposed to be. So that got published as a highly likely effect of wildfires.
There is also a big snowstorm, a freak snowstorm in Colorado that year that people thought also had an effect, which it may have. But in their data it didn’t come out as significant. But definitely the wildfires were a factor, and not a good one.
[Lisa Kopp] Yeah. Right. And that can have such widespread– that smoke can travel so much further than– yeah.
[Kevin McGowan] Oh, yeah. And that’s the other thing they were indicating, that yes, that was the other thought, is that the air was so bad that it was harming. And there was some evidence of that as well.
[Lisa Kopp] Yeah. So much to try to understand and also try to fix, try to reverse, which is ultimately what we’re hoping to do at The Lab.
[Kevin McGowan] Yeah. I mean, migration is a strenuous enough event, even if there isn’t anything being thrown at you as you go by so.
[Lisa Kopp] Yeah. It’s crazy. We only have about five minutes left. So I’m scrolling through the Q&A to try to find some of the most common questions. And I’m seeing a lot of questions right now about birds in captivity.
What happens to birds in captivity who would normally be migratory? Do they have to quell that sense to move, or is it the food situation is irrelevant for them, so they’re OK sticking around?
[Kevin McGowan] Well, the ones that are real honest to God migratory that are the daylight change thing, they go crazy. And they just keep hopping. There’s actually a German word for this that people recognize this back in the 1940s I think called Zugunruhe, which means migratory restlessness. And people notice that.
And in fact, Steve Emlen, who used to– who was a retired professor emeritus here at Cornell University, he did his PhD where looking at how birds oriented using the stars. And what he did was, he took advantage of the Zugunruhe.
And he would put an ink pad at the bottom of a cone or a paper cone. And the birds would jump. And all night they would be trying to go somewhere. And what he found was that there could be footprints all over, but they were always in the proper direction–
[Lisa Kopp] Wow.
[Kevin McGowan] –under the night sky that he gave them to orient. And so, yeah, they in a cage, they get kind of hyped up.
[Lisa Kopp] Yeah. Another question that we’re getting a couple of places is what’s the story of birds being able to put half their brain to sleep, or to sleep on the move?
[Kevin McGowan] Yeah. And this is somewhat a little controversial. But birds– so we have something that connects our right hemisphere or our brain in our left hemisphere. There’s a physical connection between there that birds do not have.
And with people, there have been surgical accidents. Somebody had that connection cut. And the two brains worked independently. And so, the hands would battle for picking up a pen or picking up a spoon and things like that. It’s really weird.
But so, birds have this. And we know that they can rest. They can sleep one side of their brain while keeping the other one awake and alert. And so that they went just crazy. We know they can do that on the ground. And it’s hypothesized that they do it in the air as well. That you can be flying and you shut down for a while. And then the right side takes over. And that’s quite possible.
But we also do know that some of these birds, like the bar-tailed godwit that flies to New Zealand, once they get to New Zealand, they sleep most of the time for the first week. It’s like they’ve got a big sleep debt after flying seven days straight.
[Lisa Kopp] They’re jet lagged. [LAUGHS]
[Kevin McGowan] They’ve got to– yeah, they’re tired. So they’ve got to make that sleep up. So there’s evidence for both ways there that most birds probably don’t need to sleep half of their brain when they fly. But they might.
[Lisa Kopp] That is wild.
[Kevin McGowan] Yeah. Because think about it, flying five to seven days straight.
[Lisa Kopp] Yeah.
[Kevin McGowan] These guys are super athletes. They’re just amazingly, amazingly capable physical animals.
[Lisa Kopp] Right.
[Kevin McGowan] Just unbelievable.
[Lisa Kopp] Well, I want to leave these last two minutes to provide a couple of resources for people whose questions we didn’t answer or for who just feel like this opened up a million more questions, like you were saying. You get an answer or find some new information, and it just creates all these other questions.
So a few things before we wrap up. One is that Kevin is an instructor for Bird Academy and has how many– I mean, a ton of courses.
[Kevin McGowan] I’ve written about 12. We’ve got about 20 something.
[Lisa Kopp] Yeah. So Bird Academy is this incredible resource. There’s a variety of options, free courses, paid courses. It’s all you set your timing, you take it– what is it, self-paced.
[Kevin McGowan] Yeah.
[Lisa Kopp] So I just wanted to mention that there are some really great ways to learn more about what Kevin has talked about. And the one that we think probably makes the best sense for this audience is his Joy of Birdwatching course, which is on sale right now for anyone interested in taking it. So I’ll put that link in the chat.
And then, the other thing that I want to mention is that we are recording this talk right now. So for all of the things that Kevin talked about that you want to listen to again, or check back on links, or even share this with people, the recording of this is going to live on the Bird Academy page and be available free for you to check out whenever you would like.
And if you registered via Zoom for this, you will actually get an email from us at the end of next week with all of the archived videos from our migration celebration series of webinars. So there will be a lot of information for you to take in and enjoy. And those are, like I said, posted and available for whenever you are interested in watching them.
And then, the last thing is that we have a ton of great programming coming up over the next week and a half, and lots more information about migration, how you can help birds, the incredible science behind birds, and also how to find out what you can check out here, or check out in your yard, and your area. So we’re officially at 1:00.
I just want to say thank you so much, Kevin. I mean, I know your depth and breadth of knowledge is just incredible. And you’re such a trooper for being willing to have all this thrown at you and have such incredible answers for everything. So thank you so much for doing this. I really appreciate it.
[Kevin McGowan] You’re welcome. It’s a pleasure to do it. And thank you for involving me. It’s always fun talking about birds.
[Lisa Kopp] [LAUGHS] And thank you to the audience for being such great participants, having such great questions. And thank you to behind the scenes Mark, Leanne, and Sara for answering so many questions and helping with all of our tech. So I hope everybody has a great rest of their day and enjoy fall migration. Bye.End of transcript
Course instructor Kevin McGowan combines deep knowledge about birds with a passion for helping others learn. He is a professional ornithologist at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and one of the world’s foremost experts on the behavior of crows. Kevin is also an accomplished birder and World Series of Birding champion. Among his contributions to Bird Academy, he created the popular Be a Better Birder series of courses and live webinars and co-authored the university-level Ornithology: Comprehensive Bird Biology course.
Have you ever wondered what triggers migration, how birds navigate, or what hazards they face? Join us for an open Q&A session all about bird migration, with renowned ornithologist Dr. Kevin J. McGowan. Learn the answers to your questions, right in the midst of migration season!
This webinar is part of our annual Migration Celebration. Join us for two weeks of online events, family-friendly programs, and ideas and resources for your own migration activities. Visit the Migration Celebration website for the full schedule of events and recorded webinars.