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Getting Restless For Winter, Birds Start Their Migrations


Time now for some Talking Birds.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: A bird show, I like that. I love birds.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Ray Brown's Talking Birds.

SIMON: Ray Brown, host of the radio show and podcast Talking Birds, has migrated into the studios of WGBH in Boston. Thanks very much for being back with us, Ray.

RAY BROWN: Thank you, Scott. Yeah, I haven't migrated. Actually, I'm just stationary waiting for some favorable winds.

SIMON: Oh, all right.

BROWN: Push me south, yeah.

SIMON: We'll bring some crumbs by.

BROWN: (Laughter).

SIMON: How far do birds migrate? I know there's no one answer.

BROWN: No, there are, I guess, as many answers as there are bird species almost because some of them are very short-distance migrants. Some of them they call facultative migrants. They only go where they need to go. Like, American robins might be an example where, you know, if the weather is really nasty, they'll move a little bit south.

Sometimes, they'll have populations of them shifting. So here in New England, for example, we'll have robins in the summer that'll be replaced by robins from up north. So they're kind of the short-distance migrants. And then, there are others that travel literally thousands of miles, some of them nonstop.

SIMON: Like the fabulous bar-tailed godwit?

BROWN: (Laughter) Exactly.

SIMON: Clearly, I am a creature of my producers, yes?

BROWN: Yes, indeed. There's one bird known as E7, a female. She's the reigning champion right now, though. She flew nearly 7,400 miles nonstop in eight days from Alaska to New Zealand.

SIMON: Eight days?

BROWN: Yeah, it's pretty incredible, isn't it?

SIMON: Goodness gracious, I'm sure any fifth grader will know the answer to this question, but I'm not sure I do. How do they know where to go?

BROWN: It's a great question, and certainly that's still not completely understood. Among many birds, they seem to have an inherited instinct. We know this because they go without any accompaniment. They'll travel to a place they've never been to before and know how to get there. You know, they're following the patterns of stars. They're following the courses of rivers. They're following mountain ranges. They're following the coastline.

And maybe the most astounding thing is that they're suggesting now that birds can actually, in some sense, see the Earth's magnetic field. In other words, this actually is perceived through their eyes. There was a study just done recently in Europe with the European robin. They've manipulated magnets and made the bird orient in different directions by the way they worked these magnets and changed the magnetic field, and...

SIMON: Oh, you mean trying to pull a switcheroo on the birds?

BROWN: Exactly, yeah.


BROWN: And it really works.

SIMON: Scientists, scientists.

BROWN: Scientists can be cruel.

SIMON: What they think is a joke, yeah, all right.

BROWN: (Laughter) And one of the things they did was they figured out that the bird was using its eyes. They covered up the left eye of the bird and it didn't make any difference. It knew how to migrate. It knew how to follow that magnetic field. But when they covered up the right eye, it was lost.

SIMON: Oh, my.

BROWN: So something very specific they figured out there.

SIMON: But they still haven't cracked that?

BROWN: Not entirely.

SIMON: Yeah.

BROWN: And by the way, Scott, if you're wondering about the efficiency of this, this is another little...

SIMON: Yeah.

BROWN: ...Interesting fact about...

SIMON: Please.

BROWN: These songbirds, there's one called the blackpoll warbler, and it has another incredible migration route, flies all the way across Canada, then all the way down the Atlantic coast over the water to the Caribbean. And they figured out, you know, these birds, they fatten up before they go so they can have all this fuel.

But they burn it so efficiently as a car would do, except somebody figured out if you could make a comparison between the blackpoll warbler and a car, the blackpoll warbler would be getting 720,000 miles per gallon.

SIMON: (Laughter).

BROWN: Take that, Prius.

SIMON: Yeah, exactly. Well, Ray Brown, host of the show Talking Birds. Thanks very much for joining us.

BROWN: My pleasure. Thank you, Scott.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOBBY DAY SONG, "ROCKIN' ROBIN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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