It is that time of the year when billions of birds are on the move. No one knows for sure how many birds are alive on and above the planet at any given time and isn’t it wonderful that science doesn’t know all the answers to all the questions? The estimates range from 200 billion to 400 billion birds. No matter. We live amidst a lot of birds and it is a privilege.
Science doesn’t even know for sure how many species of birds exist and now that genetic testing has begun, the number will no doubt increase over the next decade. We know that at least 10,000 species exist now. In North America alone, more than 900 species spend some or all of their lives. About 75% of those species migrate each year.
Some species lead comparatively sedentary lives and don’t migrate. Mockingbirds, Woodpeckers, Chickadees and Titmice are a few. But the numbers of those who do migrate are immense. In the billions. As we shall see, many fly at night and in flocks so large that they appear on military and weather radars as huge moving radar echoes. Because it is September, if you live in the Northern Hemisphere; it is likely that thousands are flying over your home every night. If you go out at night next month when the moon is full or almost full and train a pair of binoculars at the moon you won’t have long to wait until you see birds flying south for the winter.
Why they migrate and how are questions that will occupy us for several posts on this blog. We will start with why they migrate. In the next post we’ll look at current scientific understanding of that question.
But, of course, there are other ways to explain bird migration. In what is currently known as New Mexico, live the Acoma Indians. The first governor of Acoma had a daughter named Co-chin-ne-na-ko. She, as young people do sometimes, chose her first spouse poorly. He was Shakok, the Spirit of Winter. When they married he came to live at Acoma and it got colder and colder. Snow and ice stayed longer each year and the corn no longer had time to mature. The people had to subsist on cactus leaves and other hardy wild plants. One day Co-chin-ne-na-ko was out collecting cactus leaves when she was approached by a handsome young man named Miochin, the Spirit of Summer. He was, to put into the modern language of my daughter, a stud muffin and he carried an ear of corn. He gave her the ear of corn to eat and then fetched a whole bundle of corn for her to take back to her family to eat.
She asked him where he had found such wonderful corn. He told her he brought it from the south where he lived and where the corn grew year round and the flowers bloomed all the time. She asked him to show her that country but he declined saying that her husband would be angry with her. So she took the corn home after he promised to meet her again the next day with yet more corn for the people of Acoma. When she got home her mother instructed her to bring Miochin back with her the next day which she did. That evening Shakok returned home from the north, enraged to find Miochin there. They agreed to a fight for Co-chin-ne-na-ko’s hand in marriage. The fight was scheduled for four days later.
During that time, both returned to their homes to gird themselves and their allies for battle. Miochin sent an eagle out as a messenger and collected all the birds, insects and mammals that live in the south to help him. His friend Yat-Moot built a big fire to blow on Shakok. In the meantime, Shakok collected his allies and marched back to Acoma with Magpies in the lead. Magpies live in the winter lands and do not migrate.
The day of the great battle dawned and Miochin, with the aid of the hot wind created by Yat-Moot’s fire melted Shakok’s protective coating and Shakok called for a truce. He said that Miochin could have Co-chin-ne-na-ko as his bride but they agreed that each would rule for one-half a year at a time which is why there is a summer and a winter. All the birds in the battle could fly back and forth, following Miochin all year long so they would be where it was warm and there was much for them to eat.
The photograph of Acoma was made by Ansel Adams. The Acomas have Katsina masks for both Miochin and Shakok. Because we are uncertain whether Acomas allow representations of the masks to be published, we did not post any. However, someone else has and you can find them via Google Images if you are interested. The radar image is from a Pennsylvania NOAA weather radar from the night of November 2, 2006. That echo is so intense that if that had been a storm, it would have been like the storm in King Lear and people would have been running for underground shelter.