Throughout spring migration, the Detroit Zoo’s 125 acres provided refuge to many weary travelers. Now that the season is coming to a close, our staff is looking back at all the feathered friends who used our grounds as a stop on their journeys.
Over the last couple months, Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) team members have spent many hours surveying what bird species have been utilizing the habitats here at the Detroit Zoo. Some of these species live here year-round, while many species have shown up during migration and will spend the summer here breeding on Zoo grounds. Additionally, several species have used the Zoo to rest or refuel for a matter of hours or days on a long journey home to their breeding grounds.
We have seen and heard many species of songbirds, black-crowned night herons, a redhead, spotted sandpipers and much more! From March until the end of May, we accumulated at least 93 species on Zoo grounds.
The incredible journeys these brave travelers make every year are hard to put into words. Many winter as far south as Central or South America and may head far north of us into the Upper Peninsula or northern Canada to breed. The blackpoll warbler is one of these extraordinary migrants who recharged at the Zoo this May. This tiny, insectivorous species only weighs around 11 grams and sings a very high-pitched song. They often travel more than 10,000 miles round trip — including an Atlantic Ocean crossing — as they head back and forth from South America to northern Canada and Alaska.
Migrating birds overcome extreme challenges when heading back and forth between breeding and wintering grounds. Besides exhaustion and native predators, there are many human-made challenges. Fragmented habitats, light pollution, domestic cats and windows are just some of the man-made threats that make migration even harder. Here at the Detroit Zoo, we are proud to provide these birds an excellent, protected habitat on their perilous journeys.
I was born in the south, thousands of us all in a synchronized timeline when the grass was greenest and at its highest peak. For generation upon generation of wildebeest, it has remained that way. My father was born here, as was his father before him, hundreds of generations.
Our births are a sign of a change in our family landscape and a shift everyone has recognized. It’s automatic, second nature to all of them, and they have told me I would learn to remember my mother’s patterns and smells if I was to survive.
There are signs of the rains gathering over the Serengeti far from us to the north. The grass here will soon be picked clean by my fellow wildebeest, our neighboring antelope and zebra, and all different kinds of creatures who feast upon them. My mother has said that the time has come for us to travel north with the next generation born. We must follow the rains and the grasses that grow from them. The year has only just begun, and we will spend it following the rains and grass. We, old, young, born just hours ago, will travel — millions of wildebeest from thousands of herds. Even now, in the dead of night, as we all gather, ready to move, the sound of hooves is loud, and we stretch everywhere that the eye can see. It will be a dangerous journey, as all the adults have warned me. But we must travel. We must obey the distant call.
It has been months since we began our migration. And, in a word, it has been scary. The month is May, and hundreds of our family friends have met their ends in the Grumeti River. My mother and I stood atop the banks of the north shore and watched as the crocodiles gazed at us with hunger. The sounds of us trampling across the river rolled through like never-ending thunder. I asked why this was necessary.
“Because we need the grass in the north.” She told me, “Now come along; we cannot hesitate; we must continue if we are not to be late.” We still have three months to go until we arrive north, and it has only dawned on me that we will take the same path down south.
By August, I had learned that Grumeti is kind compared to the river Mara. When we crossed it, our elders scoffed and smiled.
“The rains have been slow this year,” they said, “and the river is not as bad as before.”
They’ve told me stories about years when the rain was unforgiving. When the rapids of the water tore through us like lions, the crocodiles even hesitated to close in. They tell us to count our blessings, even as today’s rapids continue to attack and harm us. Our crossing is like a bed of rivers traveling across each other. Streams of dozens and thousands of wildebeest barreling through the water at random, with no order, just a desire to cross. No turning back, and we take a leap of faith.
But, after crossing, we reached our destination in the north. The grasses here are plentiful and green, beautiful and tall. They’ve told us children that we will stay here for three months, as that is what can sustain us. So here we shall prevail. I think back to the rivers and all those lost, and I realize that the only way to honor them truly is to thrive here while we still may. Occasionally, we saw humans watching us from their machines and gazing upon us as we grazed or watching us as we crossed rivers. Some cried out while hanging to the last straw, eventually letting it go. Others just looked on in spectacle. There are more humans here, many of them with weapons that ring out like thunder.
Already, just three months later, in November, we can feel the pull of the rains to the south. The grasses here, just as in the south towards the end of February, have started to fail us, they can no longer sustain us. On a better side, however, the elders have told us stories about how this is the easiest leg of the journey. Going south, we cross no major rivers, no rapids will plague us anymore. Now all we must deal with are lions in the grasses. They’ve told me that it will be easy, though I’m still afraid.
It is December, and we’re halfway through this final leg. We’ve traveled alongside pouring rain, and we can hear and see the storm clouds thunder and feel the rain continue to drench the grasses down south. It’s been almost a year since I’ve been born at the farthest south part of our journey. The grass should be just as high and green as they were when I was born, it will be a wonderful sight.
Exactly one year since I entered this world, I have returned to the scene of my birth. Thousands of wildebeest have again joined me in our grand herd. Thousands more calves will be born soon, hundreds have already entered the world, ready to join us for the next migration. The grasses when we arrived were just as expected, green and lush. I wish we could stay forever, but I know if these grasses are to continue growing, we must leave them to grow and feast elsewhere. We are in that state of permanent migration, only now I have the experience that I did not have back then. And now, even more amazingly, I can now pass on my knowledge to other calves just born. It’s wonderful, even as we prepare to return north on another leg of the migration, that I am now the elders I revered as a calf. Much like the migration is a cycle, so too am I now a part of that amazing world.