I went birding for the first time on a cold morning in early spring. As we entered Prospect Park in New York City, I asked if we would see many migratory birds. My skilled companions responded that it was unlikely, as they were probably still enjoying the delicious sun and everlasting green of places like Colombia, my home country.
Flying back and forth between the United States and Colombia has helped me understand that moving far from home takes courage. And as I’ve learned more about birds, I’ve realized this is true for them, too. They take big risks and make long journeys in search of shelter, food, and a better place for their chicks.
I chose to migrate looking for nourishment—in my case, academic. But others don’t choose to migrate at all. Like birds whose habitats have become inhospitable, they are forcibly uprooted from the places they call home. And somehow, they’re strong enough to form new bonds with an unfamiliar landscape.
The stories below showcase how migration is a shared experience for birds and people. Not only because we both do it, but also because one human’s journey can change the lives of thousands of birds—and vice versa.
Many Saturdays when Francis Taroc was a kid, his father woke him and his brother while his mom, a nurse, slept off her night shift. They would quietly put on their boots and take a trip to Wilderness Park near Los Angeles. Crossing its creek felt like fording the Amazon River; walking down the trail, like venturing into the unknown. Since then, Taroc’s understanding of what moving through landscapes means for all creatures has guided his work.
In the 1970s Taroc’s parents left the Philippines and moved to suburban California. They were part of a wave of immigration: In the decades since World War II, Filipino medical staff—trained in schools built by the United States during its colonial occupation of the archipelago—have moved to America to seek opportunity and fill staff shortages. Growing up in a mostly white community, Taroc felt an unspoken pressure to blend in with his peers, from the clothes they wore to the food they ate. “I was always a little hesitant to invite my friends over for dinner, fearing that they would judge the Filipino food my family ate as ‘weird,’ ” he says. Being American, he felt, was a narrow idea that did not include him.
After college, Taroc wasn’t happy in his office job. Following his adventurer’s heart, he moved north to work for the Marin Conservation Corps and became a volunteer raptor bander at the Golden Gate Raptor Observatory. At the top of Hawk Hill, with a view of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, he would count the thousands of Turkey Vultures, Red-tailed Hawks, Cooper’s Hawks, Sharp-shinned Hawks, and other species soaring above. As he learned about threats these migrant birds encounter on their journeys, he better understood the immensity of his parents’ move. “Obviously it’s a hard decision to leave your entire community and travel across the ocean, but for my parents, it was really about trying to find the best opportunities for my brother and me.”
Now the associate director of education at the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, he works to inspire children in the same way he was inspired. Through the nonprofit’s Migratory Story program, Taroc and his team visit classrooms to teach youth about raptor anatomy and migration, connecting biology lessons to immigrant experiences.
The team emphasizes the raptors’ physical and behavioral adaptations for migration, such as wings designed to save energy by catching updrafts on the ridges surrounding the San Francisco Bay. Recently they have also sought to include other wildlife tales, such as a salmon’s audacious struggle to swim upstream and the multigenerational trek of butterflies. Students then use their new knowledge to count birds at Hawk Hill. During these sessions, Taroc shares his family’s story, asks questions to inspire the children to talk about theirs, and leads a discussion about how immigrants contribute to San Francisco’s culture, food, and economy.
Since 2015 the Migratory Story program has reached more than 1,000 nonwhite students in the fourth and fifth grades, about half of whom are learners of English. Some, Taroc says, have been in the country for only a couple of weeks: “It allows them to have that space and almost the permission to share their stories in a climate that sometimes really frowns upon migrants.”
Sherry Williams was at home one day when every car alarm on the block began screeching. Was there a crash? she wondered. She found the answer next door, in a vacant lot she’d cleaned up and filled with birdfeeders: a good 200 parrots, screaming in unison. Their voices were reverberating against the walls, setting off the alarms.
Her feeders had received a visit from Chicago’s colony of Monk Parakeets, a non-native species that arrived in the city in the 1970s and gained the right to stay in 1987, after neighbors battled officials to save the parrots’ massive nests. The uncommon birds had made themselves a home—a story that Williams says parallels her own. Her grandparents moved to Chicago from Mississippi, escaping poverty and racial abuse during a period known as the Great Migration, when about six million Black Americans relocated away from the South to cities like Chicago, New York, Detroit, and Pittsburgh from the 1910s through the 1970s. White neighbors, however, resisted the demographic shift. Like the parrots, she says, “we were identified as not a part of what should be there.”
The racial hierarchy embedded in the landscape deprived a young Williams and her Black peers of green spaces. The nearest park was implicitly segregated. On her street, a small dirt patch was the best spot to marvel at pigeons, starlings, or blackbirds. But she met freely with nature on trips to Mississippi. Her ancestors had always lived close to the earth, cultivating and hunting their food. While visiting, she soaked in her elders’ knowledge of plants, animals, and constellations. Honoring her story, she realized, also meant honoring nature.
In 2009 she began turning the space into a sanctuary, dubbed the Johnson Bird Oasis, where volunteers planted native trees, flowers, and shrubs for visiting families and birds. Nearby at the Pullman State Historic Site, the Bronzeville/Black Chicagoans Historical Society, which she founded in 1999, installed objects that people had brought along with them on Great Migration journeys, such as washboards, quilts, and Williams’s great- grandmother’s rocking chair. In 2015 the Pullman neighborhood became a national monument—one of the first fruits of an ongoing push to save Great Migration landmarks and narratives across the Midwest.
As part of efforts to revitalize the area, a plan to clean up contamination at the former factory led to the closure of her bird oasis. But Williams still joins the Afro Birders for occasional outings and she now spends time with her grandchildren and helping Black Chicagoans trace their ancestry. She’s also invested in restoring nature in Inverness, Mississippi, where 1969’s Hurricane Camille destroyed gardens and persimmon, pecan, and plum trees. “We lost these markers that told us stories of our family’s presence,” she says. Just as she built a refuge in an old factory’s ruins, she’s filling empty patches with fruit trees, so these memories can again take root and grow.
Ana González’s migration started where birds finish theirs. Although born and raised in the Colombian Andes, where many birds winter, she didn’t know much about the travelers until joining a course on the island of San Andrés as a college biology student in 2005. She marveled when she saw birds occupying every blue inch above her: “I felt like I could just take them if I extended my hand.” Holding tiny Palm and Chestnut-sided Warblers to band them, she blew aside their feathers to see how much fat they had left underneath. “They were a sharp thing. Those birds were dry,” she says. “They’d burned everything they had to get there.” Right then, she made it a goal to go where birds started their odysseys, to understand what compelled their epic flights.
Following intensive English lessons, González exchanged her lush Colombian landscapes for Oregon’s piney forests, learned the art of bird banding at Oregon’s Klamath Bird Observatory, and later took charge of banding at Delta Marsh Bird Observatory in Canada. After she became the first Latin American biologist certified as a bander and instructor by the North American Banding Council and finished her master’s degree, she worked at what she saw as “the mecca of bird banding”: the Long Point Bird Observatory in Ontario.
“When I got to that level, I felt the weight of being an immigrant, a woman, and a Latina,” she says. Despite her deep knowledge of avian anatomy, some colleagues would dispute her identifications. Respect wasn’t a given, she says: “I had to earn it.” Meanwhile, her doctoral thesis was brewing. She’d previously visited the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, mountains in northern Colombia where she observed Canada Warblers—a declining species—in great numbers at shade-grown coffee plantations.
It’s widely known that wintering songbirds like these habitats, but there was little information on exactly how Canada Warblers and similar species used them compared to the native forests that once covered the Andes. For five years, González tracked Canada Warblers and Swainson’s and Gray-cheeked Thrushes arriving at both shade-grown coffee plantations and high-quality forest, as some papers suggested that losing their winter habitats might be a culprit of their decline. She connected with ornithologists at the Colombian nonprofit Selva and persuaded coffee producers to collaborate in her research. She worked with Canada’s government, the University of Saskatchewan, and the nonprofit Birds Canada to fund and install the first receivers in South America linked to a global wildlife-tracking network called Motus. This enabled her to follow tagged birds to determine where they stopped and settled and how their winter habitats altered their migration patterns.
Ultimately, González proved the Canada Warblers that winter on shade-grown coffee plantations were as healthy as those in intact Andean forests, reinforcing the need for conservation projects with farmers. Her work also revealed that coffee-dwelling Swainson’s Thrushes leave Colombia earlier than forest-dwelling birds, a finding that could help time interventions with landowners. In 2022 her ability to reconcile both ends of migration—and to collaborate across languages and cultures—helped make her the first Latina to receive the American Ornithological Society’s James G. Cooper Early Professional Award, which cited her “holistic approach to the biology of migratory birds.”
“Migratory birds were the reason for my own migration,” says González, who now works at the Canadian Wildlife Service. “They are the ones who opened all doors for me and who gave me a chance to stay and thrive.”
Walking among foggy oak and pine forests in Guatemala, where she works as a park ranger, brings up memories for Vilma Karelia Marín Laguna. Although only 420 miles away from her hometown in León, Nicaragua, returning is unthinkable. As a recent refugee, she doesn’t know whether Guatemala will be a temporary sanctuary or a permanent home.
In 2006 Nicaragua elected Daniel Ortega, one of the guerrilla leaders who had overthrown a corrupt, United States–backed dictatorship in the 1970s. Viewed as a hero then, slowly Ortega became what he’d fought, co-opting political institutions to concentrate power and making his wife vice president.
The situation reached a boiling point in 2018. A fire razed about 12,000 acres in an important protected forest, partly thanks to Ortega’s delayed response. Weeks later the government gutted benefits for retirement. Protests erupted. Violent repression followed. After 60 people died (the final toll is estimated at 400), Marín Laguna couldn’t stand by. Then a college student pursuing a delayed degree in tourism on weekends, she persuaded 40 others to protest. It was the first time that sabatinos, as part-time students were called, joined the opposition. Press came, and speaking to them made Marín Laguna a target.
She began finding threatening notes. “I lived with constant fear of being kidnapped and that my family would never hear from me again,” she says. Her worry was justified, as many opposition leaders were jailed. When government-backed student leaders knocked on her family’s door in 2019, Marín Laguna hid under a bed while her dogs barked. Her mom said her daughter wasn’t home. Fearing for her life and her mom’s emotional well-being, Marín Laguna called a friend who had left the country. It was her 32nd birthday.
Four days later, she became one of more than 74,000 refugees who had fled Nicaragua, most of whom have left since 2018. Pushed by violence, political instability, poverty, and climate change, more people from other Central American countries—primarily Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala—have also left their homes. The situation has contributed to a humanitarian crisis across borders, as migrants move with little to no money and an uncertain future. In response, the Guatemalan environmental group Fundaeco, with funds from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, created Empleos Verdes, a program that’s hired more than 100 refugee and asylum seekers to work in 12 parks and protected areas alongside Guatemalans who are also at risk of migrating. Thanks to her unfinished tourism studies, Marín Laguna became one of them after training in environmental education, patrolling, and horticulture.
Each morning Marín Laguna takes the road to Fundaeco’s Reserva Natural El Manzanillo, situated in a corridor of one of Guatemala’s few remnant high-altitude forests, which have been decimated by urbanization and deforestation. Most days she patrols or sweeps trails in the reservation, where creeks that provide water to Guatemala City are born and where Indigo Buntings winter. The vistas remind her of childhood trips to see family living in Nicaragua’s mountains.
Marín Laguna once hoped to pursue a passion for Nicaragua’s history, culture, and wildlife by creating an ecotourism route through those slopes. Now, from Guatemala’s calm forests, her dream is distant but familiar. “When you migrate, it’s not easy. You go through hunger, cold, and emotional crisis,” she says. “But when you get to this kind of place, you feel you haven’t lost anything and that your life is worthwhile. Everything you’ve lived through brings you to the place you should be.”
This story originally ran in the Spring 2022 issue. To receive our print magazine, become a member by making a donation today.