Thursday, 6 November 2014

The myths of migration

The goldcrest takes the title of Europe’s smallest bird; and weighing just six grams (that’s the same as a twenty-pence piece), it is around half the weight of a blue tit. They are one of many British species that have both a resident breeding population living here all year round, and a migratory population that visits us from Scandinavia, Russia and Poland where typical winter temperatures would prove fatal.

Though usually inconspicuous during the breeding season, they are often seen in autumn when newly-arrived migrants are busily feeding to recoup from their long journey and prepare for the winter ahead.

The fact that such a tiny creature can make the perilous flight across Europe and the North Sea once seemed so implausible that some early thinkers concluded that they must be aided in their feat.  The goldcrest’s arrival more-or-less coincides with that of another autumn migrant, the woodcock, and it was believed by some that goldcrests crossed the sea hitching a lift on the woodcocks’ back.

According to legend, this gave rise to the goldcrest’s traditional folk name of ‘Woodcock Pilot’.
The tale of the woodcock pilot is not the only myth associated with migration and there are a number that centre on the woodcock itself. Most widely-known is that of the apocryphal ‘Woodcock Moon’ that suggests woodcock time their migration to coincide with November’s full moon, using its light to help them navigate. This seems bound to an earlier, more farfetched myth that proposed that woodcock flew from the moon where they had purportedly spent the summer.

In truth, it seems unlikely that woodcock use the light of the moon to migrate – as a nocturnal species their eyes are well-adapted to low-light levels. The most obvious cues for migration are the weather conditions and woodcock appear to favour sea-crossings on nights that are dry and cloudless with a favourable tail-wind. It is probably the case that on these clear nights the moon appears at its brightest and so woodcock and the November moon have become interwoven in country lore.

There is another, more plausible tale as to how the goldcrest became known as the woodcock pilot. This suggests the goldcrest is a ‘pilot’ in the alternative sense of the word; a preliminary guide which tests the water before the arrival of the woodcock. It’s true that that appearance of the goldcrest commonly precedes that of the woodcock and I mention this as I have seen a number of goldcrests feeding in the garden this week.  Perhaps this suggests the woodcock will soon be on their way?

For the next few weeks all eyes will be on the Woodcock Watch website as we anticipate the welcome return of our winter visitors.

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