Op-Ed: Birds and humans can’t resist Zugunruhe — the urge to be gone

The author, Caroline Van Hemert, ducks her head as a long-tailed jaeger defends its nest in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge of northern Alaska.
(Patrick Farrell)

In Alaska, spring comes in stages. The days grow longer, the sun finally rises before my late morning coffee break, and the darkness no longer feels eternal. I smell dirt for the first time in months as snow begins to peel back from the earth. The gulls arrive first, their stark white forms against the still-gray landscape impossible to ignore. What, at a glance, look like patches of fresh snow against frozen mud flats are instead winged messengers here to remind us that our lives are not static.

In front of my office window, tiny black-capped chickadees show off their acrobatics on a nearby birch tree, their fee bee songs a sweet serenade to the changing of the seasons. Persisting in temperatures of 20, or even 40 degrees below zero, these birds are among winter’s small miracles. And now they are ready, perhaps more than any of us, to celebrate the return of light and warmth.

For birds, the urge to move cannot be contained. Its pull is so intense that a sandpiper’s organs atrophy to accommodate the demands of migration. A caged robin will launch itself northward again and again, hammering against glass walls even if it has no view of the outdoors. There’s a scientific term for this: Zugunruhe, a German word that means migratory restlessness. There’s no mistaking the signs. Wings fluttering, sleeplessness, disruption of normal activities. We’ve all experienced this feeling at some point. Suddenly the fact of sitting in an office chair under fluorescent lights in front of a blue computer screen seems not routine but intolerable.

Among researchers, knowledge is king. But it’s what we don’t know that captures our human imaginations.

A mixed flock of shorebirds gathered off the coast of southeast Alaska.
(Patrick Farrell)

Of course, I’m not a bird, and our human urges can’t all be explained by an 18th century concept in ornithology, but we are also not immune to the whims of the seasons. Nor to the wonder of migration.

Two hundred and fifty years ago it was thought that swallows hibernated by burying themselves in mud all winter. The alternative seemed too outrageous — wings beating high above oceans and glaciers, following an invisible map thousands of miles just because. The everyday lives of birds are so remarkable that they challenge our human notions of logic.

As a biologist, I can’t resist the lure of trying to understand the how and why of an act that seems nothing short of miraculous. Just over a decade ago, a female bar-tailed godwit traveled more than 7,000 miles from Alaska to New Zealand, marking the longest nonstop avian journey ever recorded. For eight days, she did nothing but fly, averaging close to 35 mph.


Enter the Fray: First takes on the news of the minute »

Since then, the technology of tracking devices has improved so dramatically that our knowledge about how and where species migrate is growing faster than at any other time. And yet it only makes our jaws drop further in awe. Unlike the magician’s tricks that lose their magic once the screen has been removed, birds continue to amaze us with their physiology, endurance and flat-out grit. Even today when satellites indisputably track birds across computer screens, long-distance migrants show us how extraordinary the ordinary can be.

Among researchers, knowledge is king. But it’s what we don’t know that captures our human imaginations. In springtime, the two converge and collide, wonder meeting fact; inspiration finding its origin in our smallest winged companions.

Birds have little respect for borders. They have no patience for the inertia of everyday life. Each spring, I can’t resist their calls, daring me to set out, like they do, into the world. If not for birds, I might not be dreaming of faraway places where the sun never sets. If not for birds, I wouldn’t know the true meaning of endurance. In the fact of their small and determined bodies hurtling past, I see the possibility that I, too, might soar.

Caroline Van Hemert is a wildlife biologist in Alaska and the author of “The Sun Is a Compass: A 4,000-mile Journey into the Alaskan Wilds,” which is scheduled to be published March 19.

Follow the Opinion section on Twitter @latimesopinionand Facebook

Get our weekly Opinion newsletter