September is an excellent opportunity to begin a year-long study of migration. Here is a suggested outline for the fall portion of a migration study, with ideas on how to follow it up in the spring.
The Handbook of Nature Study has an overview of bird migration on pages 35-37; for information on the migration of monarch butterflies, check page 305.
An excellent research to consult all year is American Robin: Journey North, a collection of pages with photographs of the robin lifecycle, range and migration maps, downloadable recording sheets for classroom use, newsletters and more. Even if you decide to study an animal other than the American Robin, you will get a lot of ideas on how to organize a year-long migration study.
Migration Basics, by the National Parks Service, is an excellent overview of migration, and covers many kinds of animals besides birds and monarchs. There are also many links to activities for home and classroom.
Beginning the Study in September
1. Choose an animal to study.
First, do some research to find out what animals that live near you migrate in the fall. One of the best sources of information is your wildlife field guide. Find a creature that you see regularly in the summer, and look up its range on the range map in the field guide. If your creature has separate winter and summer ranges, it migrates. Some animals migrate incredible distances, while others move just enough to keep up with their food supply.
- Look up migration online or in a book from the library. What animals migrate where you live? What animals in other parts of the world migrate?
- Do these animals all migrate for the same reason?
2. Watch for signs of impending movement:
Animals usually change their behavior when migration is imminent. For example, many migrating birds will begin to congregate in large groups. Begin by counting the number of the creature you see in your yard each day. You should see that the number increases, or you will start seeing large groups gathering in parks, school yards, or other open areas. You may notice a large group of birds coming into your yard to eat berries or other foods that you have in the yard.
- What animals do you see gathering in larger numbers than in the summer?
- What are they doing when they're in the large group? When do they gather? Do they gather all day, or just in the evening to roost?
- Are there males, females and young birds? Or are the males and females separate?
- When did you begin to see them gather?
3. Start noticing the weather:
Scientists don't know all the things that trigger migration instincts in animals. But we do know that changes in the seasons are connected. Vultures will often take flight on a warm, sunny day after a cold spell, because they ride "thermals," columns of warm air that rise from the ground, to get to soaring heights. You will see several all spiraling slowly into the sky in a column -- very cool to see. So start keeping track of the weather.
- What's the weather like when they gather? Is it warmer and sunnier than usual, or colder? Did the weather change suddenly?
- Was the weather cold for a period of days before you noticed the animals gathering?
Create a data table. Count the number of your animal you see each day (your dependent variable), and some other factor that you think has something to do with migration (your independent variable -- ideas include air temperature, sunny/cloudy weather, day length...).
Some sites, like American Robin, include places for "citizen scientists" to submit their data. Also check out Cornell's Laboratory of Ornithology for projects that involve volunteer data collectors who watch bird movements throughout the year.
Don't forget to sketch, take photographs and journal about your observations. Enchanted Learning has migrating animal printables to add to your notebook. The American Robin site has Resources to Explore that include many items that can be used in a homeschool or classroom migration study.
Use a migration study as an opportunity to do some map work. Incorporate range and sightings maps into math and geography. Calculate distances traveled for math. Practice using a map key, a map scale and legends.
Extend Your Learning
Do more research about your animal:
- Where does your animal go when it leaves your area?
- Find your home and the animal's winter home on a map. How far does your animal travel?
- What does the animal do when it gets to its winter home?
- Does your animal change color before or after it migrates? Why or why not?
- When the animal returns in the spring, do the males and females come back at the same time?
Share Your Study
When you finish your September observations of your migrating species, tell us how you documented your study. Post the link to your blog in Mr. Linky, and submit your blog post to The Little Green Corner Blog Carnival (see the sidebar to the right).