We usually hear them before we see them, their distinct honking overhead encouraging the others in their perfect V-formation to stay the course. Their flight schedules and patterns change little from year to year, signaling that winter is on its way.
Every fall, around mid-October, geese begin their southward journeys to warmer climates in search of food and water supplies. The lakes and rivers they call home during our spring and summer months will soon freeze over. Migration is mandatory for survival and propagation of the species.
The phenomenon is fascinating. How do geese and other migratory birds know exactly when to get ready, how to prepare and when to leave?
Different species, and even different birds of the same species, travel varying distances and routes as they migrate. Shorebirds nesting in the arctic tundra of northern Canada travel some of the longest distances—up to 10,000 miles one way—to their final destination at the southernmost tip of South America. Arctic Terns, the “champion globe-trotters,” travel 22,000 miles per year.
Because conditions are more favorable then, many migratory birds travel at night. The air is cooler and calmer, and predators are not as likely to be around. Much like airplane pilots, they select a flight altitude depending on wind conditions.
Some tiny songbirds can reach heights of 6,000 feet, though most migrate between 500 and 2,000 feet. Some species of shorebirds reach altitudes of 13,000 feet in their migration journeys. Bar-headed geese cross the Himalayas at an amazing 29,500 feet.
The majority of migrating birds fly at airspeeds between 15 and 45 miles per hour, with the speed and direction of the wind affecting how fast they can travel. Their one-way migration may take anywhere from several weeks to four months, depending on their species and destination. Most usually accomplish their migration in a series of flights that last from several hours to several days. Between these flights, they stop to rest and recharge for the next leg of their journey.
An internal clock lets these long-distance travelers know when it’s time to prepare for migration by eating more and practicing their take-offs and landings. Scientists believe that environmental factors set and fine-tune this clock. Changes in the bird’s environment likely stimulate hormone production, which leads to changes in the bird’s behavior and physiology.
Most waterfowl and shorter-distance migratory birds learn their routes and destinations from older and more experienced birds, usually family members. Long-distance migrants are born genetically programmed to fly in a certain direction for a certain amount of time. As they gain experience from year to year, they apply information they have learned along the way and make adaptations. When spring approaches, they begin the journey in reverse and return to their permanent nesting areas in the north.
Can we draw any parallels between the journeys of migratory birds and our own spiritual journeys?
Scientists have debated for years the idea that we may be somehow genetically programmed or “hard-wired” for relationship with God. We don’t have to wonder or debate. God created us and knows us and wants us to enjoy that relationship. Something deep within the soul of every person travels in search of the spiritual food and water only God can give.
Some people fight the soul’s natural migration toward God and travel circuitous routes that lead only to emptiness, frustration and disappointment. For others, soul migration begins early in life and leads to established patterns of spiritual discipline and growth that last a lifetime.
Migratory birds know that they must prepare and then make their twice-a-year journeys if they are to survive. They instinctively follow the nudges that send them on their way.
The nudges God provides us are no less subtle or consistent. God has done everything necessary for us to know God and the divine plan.
“Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord,” said Augustine, “and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee.”
Jan Turrentine is managing editor of Acacia Resources.
Editor’s Note: Two documentary films that explore the phenomenon of migration and which your class may have seen are “Winged Migration” (released in April 2003) and “Amazing Journeys” (released in 1999).