Great Migrations

Mar 3, 2021

During our recent arctic blast, robins appeared everywhere.

It seemed odd to spot a harbinger of spring in below-zero temperatures, so I looked into why I might be seeing flocks in the winter. Maybe it was the stir craziness that I was experiencing, but I went down a bit of a robin rabbit hole. Turns out not all robins have the same migration patterns, and some don’t migrate at all. 

I found a study in the Wilson Journal of Ornithology that followed the migrations of seven individual robins using archival GPS tags.  Four birds were captured in Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska. They wintered in Texas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Montana, traveling up to 4,500 km from their original location. Another robin migrated from Amherst, MA to South Carolina, over 1200 km from the capture location. But two were like, “Nah, we’re good” and stayed within 6 km of their Washington, D.C. capture location. Ecological and physiological pressures seem to dictate migration patterns. 

Migrations are part of the human experience as well. While human migration is often viewed as a political problem, it is no less dependent upon the biological and ecological pressures that determine the travel of our beloved robins. The robins flocking in my Nandina bush put me in mind of Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West, a brilliant novel that explores human migration and presents it as an essential and ever-present part of our history. The novel uses magical realism as a way to imagine migration in a new way. Rather than crossing deserts or oceans, Hamid’s migrants go through portals—literally doors—into a new environment. 

The novel begins in an unnamed city where two young lovers, Saeed and Nadia, experience the creeping-in of war into their daily lives. They decide to migrate while Saeed’s parents decide to remain. We follow the couple’s physical and psychological journeys as they travel across the globe first to Greece, then England, and finally to northern California. 

Nadia is one of my favorite characters in literature. She is resilient, strong, and adaptable. She is everything I want to be and discovered I wasn’t during the recent cold snap. Like our robin friends, Nadia will thrive in her new environment. If you loved Exit West as much as I did, you’ll be thrilled to learn that the Obamas are producing a movie adaptation for Netflix starring Riz Ahmed. 

And if the robins in your backyard have you thinking out the literal or figurative migrations we all make, here is a list of titles to feed your curiosity.