For me, one of the most interesting things about birds has always been how they can serve as a vehicle for human stories. Birds are biological marvels, with beauty and abilities that are fascinating in their own right. However, given their deep cultural, political, and economic relevance, birds can also serve as an effective channel for connecting people. Twice a year across much of North America, we watch in awe as migratory birds coming from the tropics or the boreal fly through our communities, weaving through the physical and cultural landscapes that humans have created. In doing so, they become shared symbols in our lives and characters in the stories we tell and, in this way, they connect us to places we have never been and to people we have never met.
Though fewer in number than the beloved neotropical migrants, there are bird species that migrate between North America, Asia and the Pacific Islands. These migrants not only have some incredible migration stories, but have also become important components of Asian and Pacific Islander culture. In celebration of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, I wanted to recognize a few impressive birds that are both long-distance champions and international ambassadors.
Migratory Birds and Polynesian Culture
We share a number of birds with Polynesia, many of which have a deep connection to Polynesian culture. A classic example is the Bar-tailed Godwit, which migrates more than 7,000 miles over the Pacific Ocean from New Zealand to Alaska. In addition to having a remarkable migration story, Bar-tailed Godwits play a big role in the culture of the Maori, the indigenous Polynesian people of New Zealand, who call them kuaka. The return of the kuaka signifies the beginning of spring, and they are viewed as harbingers of good fortune. These birds complete their return flight to New Zealand from Alaska in merely seven days!
Another migratory bird connecting Asia and North America, the Pacific Golden-Plover routinely covers more than 2,000 miles in a single nonstop flight from Alaska to the Pacific Islands. The kolea, as Native Hawaiians refer to them, are considered protector spirits and their migration is so deeply tied to the mythology of early settlement, that some have speculated that these birds helped early Polynesian explorers discover the Hawaiian Islands.
Bird Conservation Hinges on International Cooperation
Migration also connects faraway communities to one another through shared bird conservation efforts. Birds fly unaware of international borders, and their unique life history and inter-continental migrations means that protecting these birds requires international cooperation.
For instance, the Short-tailed Albatross is a bird that breeds exclusively on islands off the coast of Japan and parts of Hawaii, but can also be spotted along the Pacific coast of North America, particularly in Canada and Alaska. Hunted for their feathers, humans pushed this species to the brink of extinction, with an estimated 50 individuals thought to be remaining in the 1940s. However, extensive breeding programs in Japan and efforts to reduce bycatch by Alaskan anglers have yielded some success. While this species is still vulnerable today, the Short-tailed Albatross is slowly recovering thanks to conservation efforts on both sides of its migratory route.
Migration stories—be it across a state or across an ocean—bring me comfort. When I see a bird passing through during their migration, I cannot help but imagine all the places it has been and all the things it has seen. These epic journeys also highlight a broader point: globally and historically, people have attached our experiences to birds. They had names and meaning long before we catalogued them into field guides. Birding is always welcoming new adherents as people everywhere discover the magic of birds. As we welcome these new birders, it is worth noting that this relationship itself is nothing new. People around the world have always made a special place for birds. Whether you study them, write about them, use them as inspiration, or simply watch them from your window, you are engaging in a relationship that is both timeless and universal.
Recognizing this puts the importance of their conservation into perspective. It also gives me hope that our allies in protecting them are more numerous, widespread, and diverse than we often realize.
To learn more about Audubon’s global conservation work across borders, please read about our International Alliances Program.
To learn about how Audubon uses the latest in migration science to protect migratory birds and the places they need throughout their full annual cycle, please read about the Migratory Bird Initiative.