How a Passionate and Quirky Group of Pioneering Scientists Solved the Mystery of Bird Migration
The captivating, little-known true story of a group of scientists and the methods and technology they developed to uncover the secrets of avian migration.
For the past century, scientists and naturalists have been steadily unravelling the secrets of bird migration. How and why birds navigate the skies, traveling from continent to continent—flying thousands of miles across the earth each fall and spring—has continually fascinated the human imagination, but only recently have we been able to fully understand these amazing journeys. Although we know much more than ever before, even the most enthusiastic birdwatcher may not know how we got here, the ways that the full breadth of scientific disciplines have come together to reveal these annual avian travels.
Flight Paths is the never-before-told story of how a group of migration-obsessed scientists in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries engaged nearly every branch of science to understand bird migration—from where and when they take off to their flight paths and behaviors, their destinations and the challenges they encounter getting there. Uniting curious minds from across generations, continents, and disciplines, bird enthusiast and science writer Rebecca Heisman traces the development of each technique used for tracking migratory birds, from the first attempts to mark individual birds to the cutting-edge technology that lets ornithologists trace where a bird has been, based on unique DNA markers. Along the way, she touches on the biggest technological breakthroughs of modern science and reveals the almost-forgotten stories of the scientists who harnessed these inventions in service of furthering our understanding of nature (and their personal obsession with birds).
The compelling and fascinating story of how scientists solved the great mystery of bird migration, Flight Paths is an unprecedented look into exciting, behind-the-scenes moments of groundbreaking discovery. Heisman demonstrates that the real power of science happens when people work together, focusing their minds and knowledge on a common goal. While the world looks to tackle massive challenges involving conservation and climate, the story of migration research offers a beacon of hope that we can find solutions to difficult and complex problems.
Science writer Heisman debuts with a winning examination of the seasonal movements of birds, tracing how scientific understanding of bird migration has evolved and detailing the technologies that ornithologists employ to study them today. Highlighting improbable theories proposed throughout history, she notes that Aristotle believed some "winter and summer residents were in fact the same birds in different plumages," a 16th-century Swedish priest thought swallows hibernated at the bottom of lakes, and an English minister postulated that birds wintered on the moon. Contemporary scientists, the author notes, track flocks via radar and search for clues about where a bird traveled from by analyzing deuterium ("a very special type of hydrogen atom") isotopes in feathers and matching them to regional variations in deuterium levels. She profiles the ornithologists behind these advances and tells how, for instance, evolutionary biologist Thomas Smith built on genome-sequencing technology to map genetic variation in warblers, finding that distinct genetic groups follow different migratory routes. Heisman pulls off the impressive feat of making technical discussions of genome sequencing and isotope analysis accessible, and the profiles offer revealing glimpses into the process and production of scientific knowledge. Admirers of Scott Weidensaul's A World on the Wing will find this a treat.