Ask your kids if they’ve ever thought what it would be like to travel 5,000 miles away from home, and then travel back again six months later. Believe it or not, some animals have to do this every year!
Animals depend on their environment for food and shelter so they must find a safe place to live that will supply them with what they need. When an animal moves to a different location for part of the year, we call this journey a migration. There are different reasons for animals to migrate. Some animals migrate due to weather changes and others migrate for better food supplies.
Migrating animals sometimes need to travel extremely long distances, through very harsh conditions and without stopping for food. Let’s meet three animals that take some amazing journeys each year in order to breed and survive.
Monarchs are not able to hibernate during the cold weather like some other animals. Instead, they set off on a long migration for the winter. Once winter is over, they fly north again. No matter where they spend their summer – Canada or the northern United States – in the fall, monarchs take a journey to the mountains of Mexico or the coast of California.
One of the reasons that the monarch’s migration is so amazing is that the same butterfly does not return to the wintering location the following year. Each fall, a group of monarchs leaves the northern United States to head to their wintering place. When they return in the spring, they lay eggs to produce a new generation of butterflies and then die. During the summer months, the monarch has a shorter life cycle of only 3 – 5 weeks. Each grows to an adult, lays eggs and then dies. However, the late summer monarchs will have a lifespan of 8 – 9 months. These are the butterflies that will head to their wintering spots; these are the great-grandchildren of the ones that made the journey the previous year! How do they know where their ancestors wintered? How do they know where to winter? The answers to these questions are still not known.
We do know that it takes a monarch approximately two months to complete the journey. Scientists at the University of Kansas study and track the monarchs during their migration. They have learned that the butterflies use the sun and possibly the earth’s magnetic fields to find their way south to their wintering grounds each fall.
In Your Backyard: Would like to help track the monarch’s migration? Families can register to help collect data for scientists so they can learn more about these beautiful creatures. Register with Journey North in order to help to track the migration of the monarchs each fall and spring. Once you register, you can head outside and keep an eye out for Monarchs. You’re most likely to see them if you live in one of the states along their migration routes. Have your kids keep a journal of the dates, times and locations of your monarch observations, and submit these online to help scientists with monarch tracking.
The gray whale migrates farther than any other animal on earth. Almost all gray whales spend the summer months (June, July and August) at their feeding grounds in the Bering Sea, which is located between Alaska and Russia. This area of the ocean has a very large amount of zooplankton, which is the gray whale’s favorite thing to eat.
At the end of the summer months, gray whales must travel 5,000-6,000 miles to the warmer waters of Mexico, near the Baja Peninsula. They need to be in warmer waters in order to breed and have babies. Once the baby whales are born, they remain in the warm waters through the spring months. ‘Mom’ whales help their babies to gain strength for the long summer journey and baby whales (calves) also eat to gain blubber so they will be warm in the cooler waters up north.
As the whales travel their migration route, they swim close to the coastlines of North America. It’s a very long and dangerous journey for mother and calf. Swimming close to the coastline allows scientists to follow their migration and learn more about their amazing journey.
To Explore More: In order to learn more about the gray whale’s migration, visit the map of their migration routes. This map will highlight some of the whale’s activities along the way. You can also follow along as whale sightings are tracked during the fall 2012 migration and follow the journey of these amazing mammals as they travel south.
Ruby-throated hummingbirds are one of the smallest birds in North America at only 3.5 inches long and weighing only 2-6 grams (just a little more than a penny weighs). They live in the eastern and central United States and parts of Canada during most of the year, but as winter approaches, they begin their amazing migration across the Gulf of Mexico.
Scientists have followed their journey to learn more about how such a small bird could withstand the wind and elements to travel more than 500 miles across water. Hummingbirds can fly forward, backward, up and down! They are also able to fly very fast – up to 25 miles per hour (sometimes faster if the wind is behind them). Before making this long journey, hummingbirds double their body fat. This helps them to be able to fly without stopping to eat.
Scientists estimate that it takes the hummingbird 18 – 24 hours to cross the Gulf of Mexico, flying non-stop during their migration! Ask your kids if they think they could walk 18 hours without stopping to rest? To see when the birds begin their migration across the Gulf of Mexico, you can follow the sightings from across the United States.
Help Them Migrate: Would you like to help the hummingbird as they migrate? You can provide feeding places for the birds. Learn what types of flowers hummingbirds like to feed on or how to make your own nectar for the hummingbird feeder in your yard.