For the Birds Radio Program: Migrant Birder Adjusting to New Nest

Original Air Date: Jan. 9, 2008

Laura, Photon, and Kasey are adjusting to a new home, as migrating birds do when they arrive on a new territory.

Duration: 3′55″


I’m in the process of moving into a new apartment. I don’t have much stuff yet, since I could only bring what I could fit into my Prius, but whenever I put something away or get a room looking sort of the way I want it, I find myself sitting and staring at it, off in some kind of weird reverie. I don’t know if my brain needs to imprint on my new surroundings or what, or whether it’s maybe some territoriality thing. When I’ve watched my neighborhood robins establish their territories in spring, they appear to be doing pretty much the same thing. They check out the feeding, then the male flies up to a potential singing perch, belts out a song or two, looks every which way, and then just sits there a moment, as if he wants to get a sense of how it feels being in that particular space. He does this at four or five different spots, sometimes testing the final two or three choices over and over before settling into one favorite perch. Of course, while he’s testing each singing site, he’s still effectively advertising his territory, so if he changes his mind about one perch, he hasn’t really wasted any time or energy. It’s more important for the female to choose the right nesting site before she starts building, and especially if she’s new to an area or the previous year’s nest failed, she spends a lot of time landing on different spots, looking in every direction to see where predators might lurk or whether the sunlight would be too strong or if there would be too much wind or not enough shelter from rain.

I’m operating under the assumption that my apartment is safe from predators and weather, but maybe we humans share at least to some extent that need to look at our territory from every angle, absorbing it fully in order to feel fully at home. My dog Photon and my cat Kasey certainly checked out every nook and cranny before settling in, and Photon doesn’t seem to feel quite at home yet. Of course, she’s used to traveling with me, so she probably thinks this is yet another brief trip. Come February we will be going back to Duluth for a week, and I don’t know how she’ll feel about leaving that home to come back here again—I don’t know if she really wants to be a migratory dog. Fortunately, more than anything she seems to want to be where I am, so even if she hasn’t totally imprinted on this place before we go back, she probably won’t be very upset to leave her real home again.

Many migratory birds establish a territory on their wintering grounds as well as on their breeding grounds. And ornithologists are learning more and more about how female birds establish and defend territories against other females, just like males both on breeding grounds and on wintering grounds. Since I’m going to continue spending time in Duluth, where after all my husband still lives, apparently I’m turning into a migratory bird myself. I’ll learn firsthand what it’s like to be imprinted on two different homes over a thousand miles apart. But meanwhile, as I drink in this new home, I think I’m growing ever more understanding about what it feels like to be a bird who leaves one place she calls home for another that she’s equally territorial about because that, too, is home.