Just Passing Through

A flock of homing pigeons has taken up residence on our roof. How do we know they’re homing pigeons? They’re all banded, they’re very sleek and well-fed, and they seem a bit lost.

They stand on our skylights and look down at us with beaky expectation, as if we know what to do better than they. I think what they’d like to do is move on, but they’re not quite sure to where.

It’s migration season all over the world, creatures on the move. And whether out of habit, necessity or instinct, migration is always a dicey venture.

Billions of birds migrate every year, and every year it gets a little harder for them. Ornithologists at the Max-Planck Institute estimate that up to 10 billion migratory song birds don’t make it from their point of departure to their destination, and statistics are pointing to a 50 percent overall loss of the world’s songbird population in just the past 40 years.

Five of a flock of seven homing pigeons trying to figure out their next steps. Photos: PK Read

Four of a flock of seven homing pigeons trying to figure out their next steps.
Photos: PK Read

What’s happening?

There are the old culprits of hunting, with some cultures clinging to archaic trapping methods of capturing tiny birds that make barely a mouthful.
I think of these habits, which are worldwide and involve different birds in each region, and when they must have begun.
Was it out of a sense of longing, that the eating something so delicate and that sang so sweetly would somehow impart some of that fleeting beauty to clumsy, earthbound humans? Was it out of basic hunger and the seasonal availability? Was it out of a sense of plenty, just so many of damn things that putting a few dozen in a pie would make no difference?
These days, it seems like people do it just because they can. And old habits die hard.

Migratory bird routes mapped and animated by Movebank, a project of Max Planck Institute of Ornithology, which collects and communicates migration research for a wide variety of migratory animals. Source: Movebank

Migratory bird routes mapped and animated by Movebank, a project of Max Planck Institute of Ornithology, which collects and communicates migration research for a wide variety of migratory animals. Click here for a beautiful film of routes across Eurasia.
Source: Movebank

But beyond hunting, there are the bugaboos of climate change and, probably most relevant, habitat loss. Not just the habitats where the birds overwinter or breed, but the flyover areas. The navigational abilities of the migrating flocks are considerable, but can’t necessarily account for all the new human settlements in areas that used to be resting zones, or dark areas now illuminated by city lights, or absent wetlands, or all those windows that look like sky.

The good news is that there are a number of technological innovations and legislative solutions underway to try and stop some of the songbirds from ending up against a window instead of their summer home, or being confused by light smog.

What will our visiting pigeons do to find their way home? I wish I knew where they needed to go – they certainly keep looking in at me as if I do.

Hopefully, they’ll just be circling, as they do right now, and the right flight path will suddenly occur to them.IMG_1857

 

View from Above

17th century celestial map by Dutch cartographer Frederik de Wit

17th century celestial map by Dutch cartographer Frederik de Wit

We’re always looking for reasons, causality, connections, in life and in science. There’s an ongoing project that might be an invaluable tool in discovering unexpected interconnectivity on the planet’s surface.

The ICARUS Initiative (“International Cooperation for Animal Research Using Space”) is a scientific collaboration working towards placing a remote sensory system on the International Space Station to track tagged animals around the globe.

The Icarus team is developing tag sensors that can be placed on any kind of animal, from zebras to butterflies, and which will relay the animals’ movements to the ISS antenna for distribution and analysis.

Movebank map. Click on the image for an interactive view, which can be filtered by animal identifiers.

Movebank map.
The data will be collected and stored with Movebank.
Click on the image for an interactive view, which can be filtered by animal identifiers.

By allowing scientists combine data sets from separate studies in new ways, including meteorological and geological data, entirely new questions can be proposed and ideas tested.

Suggested uses include tracking the spread of disease, gaining insight into migration, ecological patterns and better understanding of evolutionary processes.

And then there’s the example given by Dr. Martin Wikelski, head of the ICARUS Initiative and Director at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology: By observing the movement of goats on Italy’s Mount Etna, volcanic eruptions can be predicted up to six hours in advance.

Huichol cross ('God's eye'). The four points represent the eternal processes of earth, fire, air and water. Colors carry symbolic meanings, as well.  Source: Geo-Mexico

Huichol cross (‘God’s eye’). The four points represent the eternal processes of earth, fire, air and water. Colors carry symbolic meanings, as well.
Source: Geo-Mexico

When I was a kid growing up in California, it was common to pass the pre-Internet, pre-digital time of day by making God’s eyes, stick and yarn creations that symbolize the power to see and understand the unknown. God’s eye weavings are mostly decorative now, but the basic colors represent various aspects of life. Weaving together a God’s eye can be a way of meditating on how the various strands of life work together in unseen ways.

There isn’t really a scientific equivalent to the God’s eye, but projects like the Icarus Initiative might just be a start.