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Friday, May 6, 2011


The violet-green swallows are back, wheeling under lowering clouds threatening more winter rain, even though the pasture grass is greening up and the spring wildflowers are defiantly blooming.  These plants are not pollinated by honeybees, but rather by beetles, bumblebees, and other animals less prone to an unusually cold, late spring.
Violet-green swallow, Tachycineta thalassina. Photo by Tom Munson

The swallows are back.  Their internal drives told them to head north into the teeth of cold wind, rain, and hail.  The day I first saw them this year was hardly in the mid-40s, with a sharp-tongued wind laying bare the fragile promise of my jacket.  I wondered if there were any airborne insects for the birds, between the cold and that wind.

These birds spend the northern hemisphere winter in South America, a long way away. They make their way there and back again on those marvelous, fragile wings, guided by the shared hertitage twisted into the strands of their DNA.  We call it instinct, which means we don’t know how they know.  At leas, it doesn’t appear to be knowledge acquired only through the individual’s own experience.

Animal navigation has been the subject of a great deal of human curiosity and research, and we are slowly making headway in understanding the cues that animals use when traveling over vast differences.  Recent work with loggerhead sea turtle hatchlings suggest that the hatchlings use magnetic forces in the earth to find their way, both with respect to latitude, their north-south position, and longitude, their east-west position.  The magnetic field isn’t consistent particularly on the east-west gradient, but the variation through space may be sufficient for the hatchling turtles to recognize their position and make their huge circuit of the Sargasso Sea. 

Loggerhead sea turtle, Caretta caretta. Photo credit: NOAA

Birds also use magnetic cues to find their way.  However, their ability to navigate is also clearly influenced by their experience.  When a biologist captured and transported south-bound starlings en route from northern Europe in the Netherlands and released them in Switzerland, the adult birds compensated for the sideways shift, but the young birds did not.  Juvenile barn swallows responded to magnetic cues when skies were overcast, but didn't do so otherwise. Different birds use different methods of migration, a result of the behavior having evolved again and again. Landmarks and stars and the sun all are used to some extent.  Migrating birds travel enormous distances and risk death if they arrive in the wrong place.  No wonder they draw their navigational information from many sources.

The feat is perhaps all the more spectacular for braiding together multiple lines of evidence, experience, and instinct in a brain we are more likely to mock than admire.  However they do it, I’m glad the swallows found their way back to our pastures again.  Their astonishing flight seems more an aerial celebration than simply a means of survival.


  1. You need to get Dan to start taking some of your pictures for your posts!

  2. These are wonderful; the goldfinches have returned to our neighborhood and I lingered over breakfast this morning to watch for a few extra moments as they flocked to the feeder, wondering if and how far they'd traveled.