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North on the Wing: Travels with the Songbird Migration of Spring / Book Review

North on the Wing, by Bruce Beehler, is a new book about songbirds and their migration along the Mississippi River.

It's Springtime. Flowers are blooming, rain is falling and birds are singing. One ornithologist decided to follow some of these birds. In his new book, "North on the Wing," Bruce Beehler chronicles their migration. While we didn't want to ruffle his feathers, we wanted Commentator Rex Buchanan to review it. We didn't have to henpeck him at all. He was happy as a lark to take us under his wing.

Commentator Rex Buchanan is director emeritus of the Kansas Geological Survey at the University of Kansas. He was reviewing the book, North on the Wing, by Bruce Beehler.

The Cooper’s Hawk recording used in this book review was provided by the Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. (Special thanks to Pat Leonard!)

Production assistance for this commentary was provided by KPR News Intern Taylor Smith, a junior from Salina, studying news and information at the University of Kansas.


We’ve got a Cooper’s Hawk in the neighborhood. This hawk is a little smaller and a little rarer than the red-tailed hawks that are common around here. The Cooper’s Hawk has a distinctive call.

Many Cooper’s hawks do something else that’s incredible. They migrate. Every year. Some as far south as Panama.

There’s a new book about bird migration called North on the Wing, by ornithologist Bruce Beehler from the Smithsonian Institution. This book is about songbirds, not raptors like the Cooper’s Hawk, and it focuses on bird migrations along the Mississippi River, not our part of the country.

Still, it makes you appreciate the incredible lengths that all sorts of birds, including the ones around here, travel every year.      

Beehler first encounters songbirds, mainly warblers, starting in early April in Gulf Coast states like Texas and Mississippi, where they’ve landed after crossing the Gulf of Mexico from points south. From there, he follows them north, up the Mississippi Valley, all the way into the forests of the lake country of Ontario.

For the birds and for Beehler, it’s an incredible journey.

Why do they do it? Why, every fall, do birds head south, some into South America, before returning in the spring. Food, mainly, he says, and places where they can reproduce safely. “The birds we glimpse passing northward in spring are conducting a strategic relocation exercise to reproduce and to enhance the long-term survival of their genes,” he writes.

And how do they do it? How do they know where to go? “To complete the roundtrip journey south and then back north to the breeding area,” he writes, “the warbler needs, in essence, a map, a compass, a calendar, a clock, and a good memory, all stashed way in a brain a little bigger than a couple of peas.”

Once the birds get back, they get busy finding a mate and raising young. To attract a female warbler, says Beehler, a male may sing more than a thousand times a day. And once they find a home, they may not travel far. The summertime range of a black-capped chickadee, like the ones we have around here, may be only about 50 acres.

Beehler’s book is full of good stuff like this. This isn’t existential, introspective nature writing. He pays more attention to birds than himself. Still, Beehler stays in some cool places while he’s chasing birds, especially lesser-known state parks and federal wildlife refuges.  

So the next time you see a hawk, or even a delicate songbird, flit past, give it a little more respect. These small animals have seen more of the world than many people. They have to contend with fragmented habitat, cats, buildings, windfarms, storms.

And still . . . they fly, thousands of miles. It reminds me of a line from the movie Jeremiah Johnson. Robert Redford plays the famous Montana mountain man. Seeing a hawk on the wing, he says, “Goin' for the Musselshell (River). Take me a week's ridin', and he'll be there in . . . hell, he's there already.”


Learn more about North on the Wing, published by Smithsonian Books

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