Sooty Shearwaters in flightIn 2008, British professor Tim Burkhead published a book on the history of ornithology with a particularly apt title: The Wisdom of Birds. What makes that title so appropriate is the fact that birds are indeed wise. 

While humans may get lost traveling across town, birds usually seem to know exactly where they’re going. Whether it’s a function of magnetic fields or light or simply some internal compass, most migrating birds are able to navigate successfully from their summer to their winter homes, and back again each year.

Many birds travel impressively long distances; these include the tiny rufous hummingbird, which migrates 2,700 miles one way, and the American golden-plover, which can cover a whopping 2,400 miles without stopping. Most amazing of all, though, is a 17-inch long seabird that annually flies approximately 20,000 miles—one way.  

Using geolocating tags to track the birds, a research team from the University of California, Santa Cruz discovered in 2006 that the sooty shearwater, a native of New Zealand, migrates farther than any other animal ever tracked. According to BirdScope, a publication of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, “They found that the birds traversed the entire Pacific Ocean in a figure-eight pattern, ranging as far north as the Bering Sea and as far south as Antarctica.”

Our own life journeys seem easy by comparison. And yet, even more so than the shearwater, we need an inner compass, a light, a magnet drawing us irrevocably toward the place where we belong.