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By Sally Maxwell
1st Place, Science or Technology Article, 2020 NMPW Contest. Winged migrations help curiosity take flight.
As we welcome spring, the changes of the season begin to appear all around us. The snow melts away, while the sun breathes life back into the greenery throughout Santa Fe. The days get longer and warmer, flowers begin to blossom and trees don a fresh coat of leaves.
With this abundance of life, animals that disappeared for the winter begin to reappear. Some of these creatures have emerged from hibernation, where they slept for several months, lowering their heart rate, breathing rate and body temperature to survive on the fat reserves they amassed last fall. Others migrated, travelling hundreds of miles in search of warmer weather and food.
As your children notice these changes around them, helping them understand seasonal change is so valuable in helping develop their curiosity and interest in the natural world. Engaging with your children’s learning through conversation, play and family time is equally as important as classroom learning. So … how do you explain migration to your 6-year-old?
Well first, let’s talk about what migration really is.
Migration is the seasonal movement of a species that travels relatively long distances in search of better climate, food or breeding ground. Many animals migrate, but birds are often the best known for their migrating behavior. Roughly half of all bird species migrate, for many reasons. Some of their journeys last several months and cover thousands of miles. Some travel in search of a warmer climate in winter and easier access to food and water. Many birds travel to find the perfect spot to breed and raise their young. Many of the species that we see in New Mexico travel to Central and South America during the winter to find food and then return here in the spring to nest. Others spend the winter in New Mexico, then fly north when the temperatures warm up.
Birds prepare for this journey in many ways, including building up their fat reserves by eating nutritionally dense and fatty foods, toning their flying muscles, and growing new feathers. Migration is triggered by many different changes, such as temperature, hours of daylight and hormones. To navigate along their journey, birds travelling shorter distances often rely on their senses of sight, smell and hearing, as well as wind patterns. Longer-distance travellers navigate using coastlines, the sun, stars and even the Earth’s magnetic fields. Many animals know instinctively where to go, but some learn the routes from their parents.
Here are some fun migration facts:
Not all birds fly to migrate. Some species of penguins do so by swimming, and emus walk long distances.
Turkey vultures are considered partial migrants. Northern populations of turkey vultures migrate to Central America in the winter, leap-frogging their southern neighbors, who are sedentary.
The Arctic tern migrates from its breeding grounds in the Arctic to the Antarctic and back each year, travelling over 12,000 miles so they can enjoy two summers each year.
The rufous hummingbird, weighing less than a penny, travels from Alaska to Mexico, 4,000 miles each way.
The bar-tailed godwit flies the farthest non-stop, for eight days from Alaska to New Zealand, completing a 7,000 mile journey over water without resting or sleeping.
Humans are one of the greatest obstacles for bird migration. City lights often confuse birds, because they appear to be stars. Buildings and large-scale development cause fatal bird collisions and destroy habitat. To help birds, turn off outside lights or close curtains at night. Add stickers, screens or special BirdTape to deter window collisions. By understanding migratory behavior, we can be better stewards for our flying friends.
So, back to how to teach your 6-year-old about migration. Through play! Often when we think of teaching science concepts to children it can sound either overwhelming or boring. Yet exploring the natural world is a valuable way to engage your child in inquiry-based learning. Science isn’t just microscopes and lab coats, but also playing in your backyard, in a local park or at a nature center. Science exploration can happen anywhere, by anyone, at any time. This spring, watch the seasonal changes with your child and ask them what they notice. In Santa Fe, there are lots of exciting new birds we see when spring arrives.
Here are some activities you can do with your kids to help them understand migration and get them outdoors.
1) Map it out.
Look at a bird migration map with your children and show them where they are. Help them figure out which birds will be arriving this spring and when they are expected. There are several migration maps out there, but check out this animated map of migration in the western hemisphere at allaboutbirds.org/mesmerizing-migration-map-which-species-is-which/. Mark down on your calendar the arrival of different birds in your area then get outdoors and try to spot them.
2) Create a migration rest station in your backyard.
By planting native plants, providing a shallow bowl of water and putting out bird seed, you can create a welcoming spot for migrating birds to rest and refuel. Birds depend on native plants for food, shelter and nesting habitat. Try planting beebalm (Monardo fistulosa), desert four o’clock (Mirbillis multiflora) and wild hyssop (Agastache cana) with your children. For more ideas about planting in your area, visit the Native Plant portal at audubon.org/native-plants.
3) Provide a safe place to nest.
Many birds that spend time in cities have a shortage of safe places to nest. Birdhouses provide safer nesting spots for migratory birds. And building them is fun too. For some tips on bird box building and placement based on the birds in your area, check out www.audubon.org/news/build-nest-box-welcome-spring-birds.
4) Go on a bird walk.
Take a day trip to a local park or nature center this spring. Go on walks in different habitats and spend time looking for birds. You’ll be surprised by how many birds are found even in the middle of Santa Fe. The Randall Davey Audubon Center (1800 Upper Canyon Road, open Monday to Saturday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.) is a great place to go bird-watching, with lots of feeders that attract many species of birds. On our one-mile loop trail, you can explore piñon/juniper forests. There is no entrance fee, we have binoculars you can borrow, and our trails are great for families.