Winter Vacation: 5 Migration Destinations
As the days grow shorter and colder, as the trees shed their leaves and the nights grow frostier, we wouldn't blame you for dreaming of travelling to a more clement climate. Where would you spend the winter, if you could? Hawaii? Mexico? Or maybe you'd rather just hole up in the basement? Well, a lot of animals are one step (or wingbeat, or flipper-flick) ahead of you.
So, whether you're a bird or a worm, listen up. Here are 5 of the most popular vacation destinations. . . for wildlife.
1. Argentinian Grasshopper Buffet
Most hawks don't migrate very far. Just cross a few state lines and they're done, phew! But the Swainson's hawk (Buteo swainsoni) takes it much, much further. Migrating over land through Central America, these raptors funnel through Panama by the thousands before finally coming to the pampas grasslands of Argentina. Why them, and no other hawk? Scientists aren't sure, but they're certainly not coming for the mice. To the contrary, Swainson's hawks eat nothing but grasshoppers, dragonflies, and other insects during their entire South American stay. They must really like them. Could this be the avian equivalent of a foodie tour of Italy?
2. Live a Long Life in Mexico
When a bird migrates, it does so multiple times, usually twice each year, one trip north and one south. But when a monarch butterfly migrates, it does so only once or twice, since each butterfly lives less than a year. In fact, the monarchs born in spring and early summer only live two months as adults, flying north the whole time. But the fourth generation of monarchs born in summer migrate all the way south, in the case of east-coast monarchs to a tiny forested area in the Mexican state of Michoacan. They survive all winter down there, then migrate back up north to lay the next generation, altogether enjoying over 3 times the lifespan of their parents. Maybe there's something to be said for that Mexican air?
3. Spend the Winter in Sunny.... Wyoming?
Of course, not all animals are lucky enough to be able to fly where they like. Some land animals can hibernate or go into torpor, but not all. These tough survivors just choose the lesser of two winters, and in the inter-mountain west, the less-snowy winter is located in the valley, not the peaks. But what happens when a city blocks your path? In the early 1900's, this very dilemma confronted the Rocky Mountain elk of Yellowstone National Park, which would migrate south to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, for its comparatively mild winter. To help the elk out, the federal government instated a program of seeding and irrigating forage, in addition to offering alfalfa pellets, for elk wintering near Jackson Hole. This has made what is now the National Elk Refuge a major destination for Rocky Mountain elk. Hotel and buffet? Sign me up! Mind the hunters, though.
4. Crash Diet in Hawaii
Right now, at this moment, thousands of humpback whales are arriving at the end of their two month ultramarathon from Alaska to Hawaii, a distance of nearly 3,500 miles. When they get there, the pregnant females give birth and nurse, fattening their calves on calorie-rich milk. The males, in turn, pursue the single females, gathering and competing in pods for the right to be her beau. In spring, they'll turn around and swim the 3,500 miles back. But what makes this migration stand out is that the whole time, the whales don't eat a thing. They gorge on food in Alaska, then live off of stored fat for the rest of the year. This is because while Hawaii is warm and safe for baby whales, it doesn't have any of the krill swarms that the whales eat. They can lose up to 8 tons while on vacation! Don't you wish it worked that way for us?
5. Stay in Your Basement
Perhaps one of the most unlikely winter getaways for an animal is the destination of the night-crawler earthworm. These critters just dig their tunnels deeper, up to six feet down, to get away from frozen soil. And there they stay, all winter, curled up in their damp, mucous-y basement. And if they made televisions for earthworms, they'd probably be watching those, too.
--Image from iStockphoto/Gutzemberg