The Wonders of Bird Migration

The Wonders of Bird Migration: Geese in Formation, Courtesy Pixabay Manfred Antranias Zimmer, Photographer
Geese in Formation
Courtesy Pixabay
Manfred Antranias Zimmer, Photographer
As I watch waves of migrant birds move through our valley, beginning in mid-July with rufous humming birds and a few early shorebirds, followed by raptors pouring over the Wellsvilles mountains in mid-August, then September when many of our songbirds head for the tropics, and lastly in November come the waterfowl- ducks, geese, and swans stream through by the thousands, I am thunderstruck. The remarkable physiology that allows our avifauna to find their way through storm and unimaginable distances to their destinations defies logic. Fraught with peril, it is the most dangerous part of their existence since leaving the nest.

In the past two decades, our understanding of the navigational and physiological feats that enable birds to cross-immense oceans, fly above the highest mountains, or remain in unbroken flight for months has exploded. What has been learned of these migrations is nothing short of extraordinary.

Bird migration entails almost unfathomable endurance, like a sparrow sized sandpiper that flies nonstop from Canada to Venezuela- the equivalent of running 126 consecutive marathons without food, water, or rest- avoiding dehydration by drinking moisture from its own muscles and organs, while orienting itself using the earth’s magnetic field through a form of quantum entanglement that made Einstein queasy.

Crossing the Pacific Ocean in nine days of nonstop flight, as some birds do, leaves little time for sleep, but migrants can put half their brains to sleep for a few seconds at a time, alternating sides- and their reaction time actually improves.

Birds add muscle when and where it’s needed, and shrink it away when the task is completed. Barred godwits lose their entire digestive system for flight. They burn fuel with extraordinary efficiency, qualities that would make endocrinologists, bodybuilders and weight loss gurus salivate. Birds can pack on fat without obesity’s downsides, add muscle when and where it’s needed, and burn fuel with extraordinary efficiency. Most of their fuel comes from omega 3 fatty acids gained by eating certain crustaceans and other invertebrates along the way. These fats also provide water and assist with protein digestion and synthesis

Birds have intricate air sacks connected to their lungs allowing 90% efficiency in capturing oxygen, far beyond the human respiratory system capability. This is combined with super-efficient hemoglobin molecules. Pulmonary embolism, which I recently experienced, is unknown in migratory birds. Might these remarkable beings have something to tell myself and medical science?
Regarding navigation, in addition to sight and smell, it has been recently discovered that when a photon of blue light strikes crypto chrome in the bird’s eyes which it becomes magnetized through quantum entanglement allowing them to see the earth’s magnetic lines. That’s amazing! Much of this information is from “A World on the Wing: The Global Odyssey of Migratory Birds” by Scott Weidensaul, a beautifully written book you must read.

Jack Greene for Bridgerland Audubon Society and I’m wild about Utah

The Wonders of Bird Migration
Picture: Courtesy Pixabay Manfred Antranias Zimmer, Photographer
Audio: Courtesy & © Kevin Colver
Text: Jack Greene, Bridgerland Audubon,
Additional Reading: Lyle W Bingham, Webmaster, and Jack Greene, Author, Bridgerland Audubon,

Additional Reading:

Jack Greene’s Postings on Wild About Utah,

Weidensaul, Scott, A World on the Wing: The Global Odyssey of Migratory Birds, W. W. Norton & Company, March 30, 2021,

Greene, Jack, Migration, Wild About Utah, September 24, 2018,

Hellstern, Ron, Autumn Migrations, Wild About Utah, October 16, 2017,

Cane, James, Ladybird Beetle Migration, Wild About Utah, November 18, 2010,

Strand, Holly, Heading South, Wild About Utah, October 28, 2010,

Strand, Holly, Spring Migration, Wild About Utah, April 28, 2009,

River Otters

Otter Courtesy Pixabay
Courtesy Pixabay
This summer, while running on the river trail, I saw an otter. A real life river otter. It leapt out of the water and darted into a pocket between rocks on the bank, with a trout in its mouth! It was one of those moments, where I was confronted with something that was, in my mind, so wildly outside the realm of possibility that it took me a minute to figure out what the blurred brown weasel-shaped thing even was. As soon as it registered as an otter I squealed with excitement, and subsequently side-tackled my border collie, whose desire to sniff and lick all new things would have ruined the moment for me, and our semi-aquatic friend.

When I lived in California, sea otters were a beloved, but fairly common sighting. I knew exactly where I could paddle my kayak to watch them floating on their backs, breaking open whatever mollusk they had plucked from the ocean floor to eat. I delighted in seeing them each time. But I took the fact that I could see them easily, for granted. We humans do that, I think. The things that we see often in our daily lives melt into the backdrop of the everyday, and can even cease to excite us.

When I first came to Utah, I put the notion of otters out of my mind. The first time someone mentioned river otters existing in this dry place with its hot summers and snow-filled winters, I think I may have laughed in their face. And then I whipped out my phone, and sought insights from the all-knowing Google “River otters in Utah?”. Once I knew that the freshwater cousins of the beloved marine mammals from home existed here, I desperately wanted to see them. That’s another thing I think most of us do. We accept truths in what we can see, feel, or touch. And if the thing is elusive, we want to see it all the more.

I live in Cache Valley, where the wild world feels much closer than it does in a big city. But I still sometimes feel suffocated by the human world. Concrete is slathered over much of the ground I walk on, and unless I hike deep into the pockets of the canyon, I can usually hear cars, or see folks on trails. It feels like so much of our world is discovered. And in the age of social media, places that were once far off the beaten path, now have well worn, heavily trodden trails sometimes even with lines of people flocking there. But I don’t have to blaze my own trail, or seek out some piece of so-called wilderness to feel wonder at the world around me. I took ocean otters for granted, and was given a chance at redemption with the river otter. I may never see another one again, but I know they’re there, swimming along as I run the river trail.

Despite the fact that 80 million miles of roads twist and turn across our planet. Or that human impacts hit just about everywhere, like the trash in the bottom of the Mariana Trench.,

There are still moments of wonder, where the natural world brings forth a complete surprise, a moment of stillness, some event that pops in unexpectedly as if to whisper “I’m still here!” and “there’s so much you don’t know”. I hope this gives you permission to take a moment and look around, take in all the natural world has to offer. Stop and look at the things your mind has melted into the background.

It doesn’t have to be a river otter, it could be the Sumac tree in your yard turning red. It could be excitement from seeing a new bird on your feeder. It has been raining as I write this. I’m going to go sit and listen to it.

I’m Ellis Juhlin, and I’m Wild About Utah

Images: Courtesy Pixabay,
Sound: Courtesy & Copyright Friend Weller, Utah Public Radio
Text: Ellis Juhlin, USU Department of Biology, Utah State University
Additional Reading: Lyle Bingham, Bridgerland Audubon Society

Additional Reading

Pieces by Ellis Juhlin on Wild About Utah

North American River Otter, Lontra canadensis, The National Wildlife Federation,

North American River Otter, Lontra canadensis, National Geographic Photo Ark,

Lebing, Karen(Photographer), River Otters at the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, US Fish & Wildlife Service, August 1, 2019

Yellowstone River Otters, Courtesy National Geographic Wild:

Anifam (Animal Family) Channel, Sea Otters vs. River Otters: How to Distinguish Them???

Sermons of Birds

Sermons of Birds: Forest in Autumn Courtesy, HmsFree, Photographer
Forest in Autumn
Courtesy, HmsFree, Photographer
There is a story I like of an old Zen master who one day was asked to speak wisdom to his acolytes as they were sitting outside. He obliged. He rose and walked to the front of the students. He waited a moment to think carefully about his words, opened his mouth, and then just as he was about to speak, a bird in a nearby tree sang its beautiful warbling song. The master did not interrupt but instead simply listened and waited until the song finished, and the bird had flown away. When it had, he finally spoke: “The sermon has been delivered,” he acknowledged, and took his seat once more.

I think about this story often and dwell on its themes. The true master who is the truest student. The songbird who speaks truth without language. The wisdom elevated by listening to the world without ego.

This time of year, I try to take the lesson of the Zen master and listen to the autumn world around me, the softening sounds of my time on earth. I take pause and hear the breeze which rustles box elders scarlet and shivers aspens gold. The wind which blankets the land and grows it rosy before winter’s snowy slumber.

The birds’ notes, the bearers of great truths, have shifted from their summer selves, too. No longer do they sing for love, but instead call for companions as they find flocks to blunder between fermented crabapple trees with, and telegraph where the good black oil seed is for the benefit of all who husk germ.

I find solidarity with their industry, for I believe we all come from the same inner place. They, doing what is good and right, and I as well. I, too, likely like you, get a hankering, a reckoning to winterize, to preserve, to stock up like a tree’s fattening roots, swollen full with the liquor of next spring’s buds and blossoms. I do it through crisp cider, hot corn chowder, steamed cans, jammed jars, strong mulled toddies, and wool. These are my fruits and fat stores. These are my natural inclinations.

I take from the story of the Zen master, too, that we are all on the same team. Just as the master understood to defer a message of truth to the birds, we can all recognize the truth in what autumn fills us all with: that drive of readiness for spring by ways of winter. That our season of without only can be because of seasons of with, and that our seasons of bounty can only be through the rest with which we are pulled in winter.

So this autumn, I encourage you to listen like the Zen master to the world around you. When it whispers, “put on a sweater and sip hot drinks by the hearth,” do so. When it bellows, “can and jam all of the things for winter is coming and the taste of summer is that season’s delight,” do so as well.

And when the world says, “listen,” in beautiful birdsong, do so, and know that you sing, too, by being who you are to your core.

I’m Patrick Kelly, and I’m Wild About Utah.
Images: Courtesy Pixabay, HmsFree, Photographer
Audio: Courtesy & © Kevin Colver
Text:    Patrick Kelly, Director of Education, Stokes Nature Center,
Included Links: Patrick Kelly & Lyle Bingham, Webmaster,

Additional Reading

Wild About Utah, Posts by Patrick Kelly

Stokes Nature Center in Logan Canyon,

Avian Athletes

Avian Athletes: "I passed them in Malad. They should be here is about 10 minutes."-Derek Alder Courtesy & © Mary Heers
“I passed them in Malad. They should be here is about 10 minutes.”-Derek Alder
Courtesy & © Mary Heers
At eleven o’clock last Friday I was standing alone outside a 120 ft pigeon loft in Fielding, Utah, scanning the sky for incoming birds A few minutes later, the loft owner, Derek Alder, pulled into the driveway. “I passed them in Malad,” he said, hopping out of his truck They should be here is about 10 minutes.” Earlier that morning Derek had driven 250 pigeons to Spenser, Idaho, 180 miles away. He had released them at 8 am and had barely beaten them home.

“Here they come!” Derek spotted the lead group of 40 as they flew into view, just over the tops of two trees a few hundred yards away. When the first bird entered the loft, the computer chip in its leg band sent a message to the loft computer. We heard the ping, It was 11:19. The lead group had flown 180 miles in three hours and 19 minutes. That made the average speed close to 55 mph.

Avian Athletes: "These were all young birds, less than a year old, who had been taken to a place they had never been before, 180 miles away." Courtesy & © Mary Heers
“These were all young birds, less than a year old, who had been taken to a place they had never been before, 180 miles away.”
Courtesy & © Mary Heers
Soon the computer was pinging nonstop I was mesmerized These were all young birds, less than a year old, who had been taken to a place they had never been before, 180 miles away. They had found their way home and were now calmly walking into their loft for a bite to eat and a sip of water.

I had begun my own journey into this world of avian athletes last summer at the Cache County Fair. I had gone to cheer on my neighbor’s kids who were showing their pigs, and ducked into the bird barn on the way out. I was expecting chickens, but found my self surrounded by pigeons. This encounter soon led me to Hyrum to meet the main exhibitor, Randy Balls. He met me at the door to his house with a big smile. “Do you want to see them fly?” he asked. We spent the next hour sitting on a bench in his backyard, watching his pigeons as they circled and swooped overhead Randy’s love for his birds was contagious, and I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that I now find myself with four homing pigeons of my own in an improvised coop in my backyard.

Avian Athletes: I began my own journey into this world of avian athletes last summer at the Cache County Fair. Courtesy & © Mary Heers
I began my own journey into this world of avian athletes last summer at the Cache County Fair.
Courtesy & © Mary Heers
Growing up I had heard stories of pigeons who carried messages in both world wars. My favorite story was the one about a bird called Cher Ami, who was assigned to an American unit and carried into battle in a wicker backpack. The unit was pinned down by German guns, and to make matters worse, was also hit by friendly fire.

A desperate message was written and placed in the small canister tied to Cher Ami’s leg. “We are along the road parallel to 276.4 Our own artillery is dropping a barrage directly on us. For heaven’s sake, stop it.” Cher Ami took off. She was hit by bullets that blinded one eye and shot off part of her right leg. But she kept going. She delivered the message to army headquarters, and was credited with saving the lives of one hundred and ninety four American soldiers.

We know the messaging partnership between homing pigeons and humans can be traced all the way back to the pharaohs of ancient Egypt. What we don’t know is exactly how pigeons do it. Somehow they are attuned to the earth’s gravitational fields in ways that humans are not. I like the mystery of it. I like keeping alive the flame of wonder and awe as we continue to learn and interact with the natural world

This is Mary Heers and I’m Wild About Utah.

Photos: Courtesy & Copyright Mary Heers, Photographer
Featured Audio: Courtesy and Copyright Kevin Colver
Text & Voice: Mary Heers, Generous Contributor, Utah Public Radio
Additional Reading: Lyle Bingham, Webmaster Bridgerland Audubon Society

Additional Reading

Pieces by Mary Heers on Wild About Utah:

The Incredible Carrier Pigeons of the First World War, Imperial War Museum,

Domestic Pigeons Explained: The Complete Guide, Pigeonpedia,