A World on the Wing: The Global Odyssey of Migratory Birds by Scott Weidensaul: A review

 

My favorite of all the books that I read in 2020 was Migrations by Charlotte McConaghy. It was a novel about the amazing migratory flight of the Arctic Tern and of one woman's obsession with it. Scott Weidensaul's book is the nonfiction version of that and many other birds' migration stories and of the scientists and dedicated amateurs who track and study those migrations to better understand and protect the birds. Weidensaul is a naturalist and an active field researcher himself and he also offers his commentary and insights. We know that the numbers of songbirds, shorebirds, waterfowl, and raptors have all plummeted in recent years. The study of their migrations offers some clues as to why this is happening. 

Studying bird migration also offers us a panoply of almost miraculous stories. There are the tiny Ruby-throated Hummingbirds that cross the Gulf of Mexico in a single nonstop flight. Then there are Whimbrels that nest in the Canadian Arctic and in the fall travel east for the width of the continent before flying into the North Atlantic, straight into the violent winds of seasonal storms. It turns out that Whimbrels know what they are doing; the winds give them a boost for their nonstop transoceanic flight from the Canadian Maritime Provinces to Brazil where they spend the winter.

In addition to the actual flight, there are equally amazing preparations for flight. In getting ready for their flights, birds pack on the fat. If they were human, they'd be termed morbidly obese and yet they do not suffer the negative effects of such obesity. They are also able to add muscle where they need it and during the long flights, the birds can actually cannibalize their own organs to provide the sustenance they need. Many species arrive at their destination with their organs shriveled and they need to feed immediately to restore them. And then, of course, there are their remarkable eyes that contain electrons that allow them to "see" Earth's magnetic fields which they can use as navigation aids. Weidensaul is able to relay all of these incredible facts in a manner that is accessible for the layperson but in no way shortchanges the science. 

The writer spends a considerable amount of time explaining the advances in technology that have enhanced the capability of scientists to track the birds every mile of the way on their flights. There are ever-more-sophisticated miniaturized tracking devices that can be attached to the birds (even tiny hummingbirds) without interfering with their ability to fly and these allow the scientists to see not only where the birds end up but also where they stop along the way. Protecting those layover sites where the birds stop to rest and feed becomes one of the most essential parts of safeguarding migratory routes. One of those sites is the Yellow Sea, an expanse along the Chinese coast that provides a banquet for millions of migrating shorebirds each year, including some that are critically endangered. It is absolutely essential to the continued survival of these birds that this area be protected.  

Sensitive readers should be forewarned that parts of this book make for difficult reading. The obstacles faced by the migrating birds on their routes are many and varied and most of them are human-made. For example, songbirds migrating from Africa across southern Europe must evade those humans who consider them delicacies for their cooking pots. Some of the methods that these people use to capture the birds they want to eat are particularly cruel.

But in contrast to these horror stories, there are also some heartening tales of humans working to ease the way of the migrants. In one such instance, conservationists came up with a plan to pay the rice farmers of California's Central Valley to flood their rice fields during the times when wetland birds would be arriving in the area to provide appropriate habitat for them. The plan has worked brilliantly benefiting both the birds and the farmers. A World on the Wing presents such stories as a way that conservation can be a win-win for both birds and humans. 

Weidensaul is a passionate advocate for the birds and he seeks to inspire his readers to take up the battle to staunch the flow of losses that threatens to deprive future generations of the joy of birds. We cannot bring back the three billion birds that have vanished from North America over the last thirty years, but if we can stop or slow those losses, then we can trust birds to find a way to survive and regenerate. They have outlived the other dinosaurs; they are nothing if not adaptable. Given half a chance they will outlive us as well.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars    

Comments

  1. Hello Dorothy: As you point out Scott Weidensaul is a fine naturalist and a skilled writer. I think I have most of what he has written. Whether I need to get one more book about migration is another matter entirely!

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  2. I must look for this book. I know a lot of others in my naturalist groups who would enjoy reading this review and this book, too.

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    1. This book is a "natural" for naturalist groups!

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  3. i'd heard about the Arctic Tern but not the others. it's great that books like this are being written; i wish they received more publicity to avoid rare birds and animals falling under the category of things that are never missed until they are gone. i probably won't read it because of the dark side; i try to stay away from that sort of atmosphere; i'm more effected than i used to be by that kind of thing. (78)

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    1. I completely understand your wish to avoid "dark" topics; they can affect me badly as well. This book actually has quite a bit of light in it as well as the dark bits. Migrating birds are truly amazing, bordering on the miraculous.

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  4. It's encouraging to see how many positive possibilities stem from all the new technology we are experiencing. Being able to track the birds on every leg of their trip in order to learn how best to help them along the way, is something that will be very important to the longer-term survival of some of these birds, I expect. This is a fascinating subject I know very little about, but your review of this particular book makes me want to know more.

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    1. The advances in this technology over the last ten years or so have been nothing short of revolutionary. It has made it much easier for scientists to target their efforts toward helping the birds in ways that are most effective.

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  5. I loved Migrations as well but, honestly, I have trouble reading about any cruel actions against birds, and animals in general, so this would be a big NO for me.

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    1. There are a couple of chapters in the book that are distressing to read but most of it deals with the wonder that is bird migration and the efforts of scientists to track and understand it.

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  6. I'll have to check out both this book and Migrations! Did you ever see that movie Winged Migration? It's so amazing...especially if you're a birding fan. :)

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    1. I have actually watched "Winged Migration" several times and I never get tired of it! I agree that it is amazing.

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