The Weekly Chirp: To go or not to go

With the onset of fall arrives an unavoidable question: what am I going to do during winter break? The extended time at home can be daunting for some, especially for those of us living in New England, who are especially restricted in our ability to leave the house due to terrible weather. A trip down to The Bahamas or any other tropical area can be just the remedy for a group of buddies eager to escape weeks on end with their parents. Conversely, some students enjoy their time at home and feel no desire to seek accommodations elsewhere — for them, game night with the folks is a vacation in itself. And for the rest, their feelings may depend on the year. For this category of students, the looming question of whether to go or not to go resurfaces again and again, always posing difficult to answer.

Just like the students mentioned above, many birds experience this conundrum as well. While most New England birds are genetically predisposed to migration, others have an important choice to make every fall — should I stay or should I go? The driving force determining the final decision can depend on the bird species. For example, male northern cardinals, residents of New England, will sometimes overwinter in areas of their distributional range with low resources. Doing so ensures that they have access to the best breeding territories come spring. There is at least one breeding pair on campus — look for them near the chapel. Choosing the wrong migration option could result in death or poor breeding success, so each cardinal must choose wisely. However, overwintering behavior has become increasingly common over the past couple of decades due to the increasing commonness of backyard bird feeders, which alleviate cardinals of their concern for sources of food during the winter.

Other species of birds are not driven by territory selection, but rather by the sporadic emergence of food sources. This holds true for many species of finch, such as purple finches and red crossbills. These finches use their heavy-duty beaks to crunch through or pry open cones and feast on the seeds of many different conifers. Since cone production can occur at different magnitudes and different times of the year depending on the conifer, many finch migrations are largely determined by the depletion of a cone crop in one area, forcing them to find more elsewhere.

Both birds and humans face the dilemma of deciding whether to leave the safety and comfort of their homes in the winter for new lands with better resources. Just as migration for birds seeking abundant resources can result in death by energy depletion, predation or inclement weather, trips for humans seeking tropical, parent-free paradises can exhaust our limited monetary budgets and increase our chances of injury. Whether we like it or not, everything in life is a trade-off — there are monumental rewards waiting for you out there if you’re willing to take the risk.

Until next time,