by Nancy McDaniel

I always wonder about migrating birds. As well as all beasts that migrate. I know it’s instinct, not intelligence (although I sometimes wonder what the difference is. And if one is “better” than the other.) I still wonder why they instinctively tend to do the “right” thing while we humans so often don’t.

To Every Thing, Tern, Tern, Tern, There is a Season….
The royal tern, I was told on the beach by a lady who sounded like she knew what she was talking about, migrates from the Arctic to spend the winter on the southwest Gulf Coast of Florida. Now, just think about that for a minute. That’s what the human “snow birds” do. If they have enough money, they pack up their warm weather stuff and fly or drive from Chicago or New York or Akron to Florida. They spend the winter missing all the snow and I, then fly home. That’s pretty smart.

The royal tern does the same thing. Well, not exactly. It doesn’t “fly or drive;” it flies. And flies. And flies. No frequent flier miles or medallion status. Just thousands of miles of flying. No wonder they just stand there on the beach. Are they resting? Or just bored?

What’s Gnu?
And then there’s the Wildebeest (Gnu) migration in Tanzania, one of the most amazing spectacles in nature. Two years ago, I was lucky enough to have seen a little of that, just at this time of year. The blind, single-minded purpose is for over one million of these odd-looking beasts to get from one part of the Serengeti ecosystem to another. The trip is about 800 miles each way. They don’t go for a change of scenery, not to escape the cold, not because they are bored. This stunning migration is for food and water, for self-preservation. Still, it often enters my mind: How do they know where to go? How do they know when to go? When to come back? It’s like the age-old question about the thermos bottle: How does it know?

Come Again?
A few years ago, again in March, I went with friends to the Platte River in Nebraska to see (and hear) the remarkable migration of the Sand Hill Cranes. Half a million or so of these awkwardly majestic and endangered birds arrive every spring. “Just resting,” refueling, like a stop at Stuckey’s on the way back from Florida. They’re going home from spending the winter in Mexico, all the way back to Canada. How do they know? Why the Platte River? Why not the Little Sangamon or something else? Why not Idaho instead of Nebraska? Was it because they knew that Jim Fowler would be there to talk about them? Or that thousands of humans would make the pilgrimage to welcome them?

We humans can be so smug with all our talk about reason, thought and logical decision making. And yet we choose to live on fault-lines and in tornado alleys and vacation in places that have avalanches and hurricanes. We put ourselves in harm’s way over and over again. We make dumb decisions about our lives all the time. What happened to our instinct? When did we so proudly decide to not trust our instinct, our “gut-feel” and think that our higher intelligence made us far superior to “just animals?”

And so I wonder as I walk along the beach some more. Before I go home to the snow. On an airplane.