Migration Myths

Guide
Waxwing Bombycilla garrulus, adult perched in tree ready to feast on the berries, Bedfordshire

Soaring to the moon, hibernating under rivers or flying off to do battle against goat riding men: our ancestors had some pretty impressive theories on bird migration. Today of course we know where they go when they leave our shores, but without the technology and global communications we have at our disposal, those who came before had to fire up their imaginations to fill in the blanks. They did so in style. In fact it is a bit of a shame some of them aren’t true.

Waxwing Bombycilla garrulus, adult perched in tree ready to feast on the berries, Bedfordshire

Here are our top eight wild migration myths... in order of weirdness.

8

Windbreakers 

Not too outlandish, but certainly incorrect, ancient Roman writer Cicero thought the leading bird in a flock flying in a V formation kept the wind off its followers. He also said that when a different bird took over at the lead, the previous leader rested its head on the back of the bird in front, like a sleepy conga. Today we know that actually birds fly in V formations to gain uplift and save energy.

Read more about why birds fly in formation.

7

Soothsayers

Natural occurrences have been taken as signs and omens across history, and it used to be that unexpected, unexplained arrivals were something to fear. When thousands of the waxwings descended from the skies, a phenomenon that only happens once every few years, it must have seemed odd. For many, it was a bad omen, foretelling terrible things to come. One particular waxwing invasion happened in the winter of 1913–14, and was seen afterwards as a harbinger of the First World War.

6

Shapeshifters  

Aristotle suggested that certain birds changed into other species for the winter, with redstarts transforming into robins!

Famous Greek philosopher Aristotle was a clever chap and when he spoke, people listened. He did get it wrong on occasion though, and it was he who suggested that certain birds changed into other species for the winter, with redstarts transforming into robins! As one species leaves as another arrives, so it's easy to see how this mistake was made.

5

To the moon and back 

In the 1700s there was a theory that birds flew to the moon in winter. Scientist Charles Morton estimated that birds would take 60 days to fly to the moon, so an average of 167mph, which isn’t too shabby.

Morton may have been wrong about birds in space, but he wasn't wrong about the vast distances some birds fly. Arctic terns hold the record for the longest migration. The longest-lived Arctic tern was recorded at 31 years old, which means that (given their immense migrations) it may have flown around 1.85 million miles in its lifetime. That's actually the equivalent of flying to the moon and back almost four times - so perhaps the myth wasn't so far-fetched after all!

4

Hitchhikers 

This is the cutest migration myth theory you will hear today. Large numbers of Scandinavian goldcrests arrive in the UK in autumn, usually around the same time that woodcocks are flying in the same direction. Goldcrests earned the nickname “woodcock pilots” as it was believed that they hitched a ride on woodcocks' backs. People thought that the goldcrest, the UK’s smallest bird, was too small to make the perilous North Sea crossing on its own. Of course today we know that these perky pocket rockets do – leaving at night and relying on the fat reserves they've built up in preparation.

3

Deep divers

For centuries many people held a theory that summer birds hibernated at the bottom of ponds.

Getting stranger now... for centuries many people held a theory that summer birds, such as swallows, sand martins and house martins, hibernated at the bottom of ponds. It was thought that these species buried themselves in wet mud and slept out the winter underwater. This made perfect sense to those who had seen the birds flying around rivers and lakes, snatching insects or roosting in reedbeds in autumn. Well a lot more sense than flying half way round the world to southern Africa.

2

Odd hatchers 

Even stranger again was the theory that barnacle geese appeared from goose barnacles. Writing in the 12th century, royal clerk Gerald of Wales gave his readers an intriguing description of barnacle geese, which he says do not lay eggs but emerge from “gummy excrescences” on floating timber. This belief continued for hundreds of years. Now we know that the barnacle geese we see here in winter have hatched from eggs just like any other goose! Although some are now resident in the UK, most fly here from the far north, either Greenland or Svalbard.

1

Warrior Cranes 

Ancient Greeks and Romans believed that cranes flew to the end of the world to do battle with armies of goat-riding men.

We have a winner! The strangest myth belongs to the ancient Greeks and Romans who were at it again, this time with their theory about cranes. They believed that the big birds flew to the end of the world to do battle with armies of goat-riding men. We’ll just leave that there…

At least they were right about the migration bit – common cranes do migrate to Spain and Africa.