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Lessons & Units

A database of lessons and units searchable by content and cultural standards, cultural region and grade level. More units will be available soon. You can use Acrobat Reader to look at the PDF version of the Cover Sheet for the Units and Self-Assessment for Cultural Standards in Practice.


Lesson 5 Seasons and Bird Migration



1) Students will describe what is meant by migration and tell the destination and distance traveled by some of the local birds.

2) Students will list which birds are common around the village in each season of the year.


1) Discuss the meaning of "migration". Why do birds migrate? Study migration maps as available. Map migration patterns for several local birds. (Alaska's Birds, pg. 70-73; "Alaska Bird Migration Map")

2) List the dangers birds may face during their long journeys. Do the "Copycat Page - Migration Maze". Make your own maze.

3) Do "Migration Math Magic" or a similar math activity. Then using your maps for local birds, calculate how far some of the birds travel from your area.

4) Using the bird list made in Lesson 2, decide in which of the 4 seasons each bird is found locally. Are they permanent residents, summer residents or birds just passing through in fall and spring? Illustrate this information with a chart.

Additional Resources:

"White Fronted Geese" from Facts About Geese (in the Appendix) "Migrating with the Birds" from Teach About Geese (in the Appendix) "An Incredible Journey" by Kate Perry, from Amazing Worlds magazine BIRDS, pg. 8-11

Video: Monty the Moose- section on migration




Bird migration is one of the most fascinating and mystifying of natural occurrences. Of 325 regularly occurring birds in Alaska, over two-thirds migrate. Some, like willow ptarmigan, migrate only a few miles from mountain tops to more sheltered subalpine or forest areas. Other birds migrate thousands of miles. Arctic terns are the long distance migration champions; they migrate south from nesting areas at the northernmost tip of the United States--Barrow, Alaska--to winter in Antarctica, some 10,000 miles south. Each spring they return to Alaska, thus, making an annual trip of 20,000 miles. Even Alaska's smallest birds, rufous hummingbirds, migrate over 1,000 miles to winter in California and Mexico. All of Alaska's tiny warblers migrate long distances, too. Blackpoll warblers migrate to South America for the winter. Townsend's warblers winter along the west coast of North America from California to Central America, and wilson's warblers make a long journey to Mexico and Central America. Several small Alaskan birds including the arctic warbler, yellow wagtail, and bluethroat migrate to Asia to winter. Golden plovers head to Hawaii and the West Indies, while the bar-tailed godwit migrates to the south Pacific. Most of Alaska's waterfowl head to the central valley of California or parts of Mexico, although the eiders, oldsquaw, scoters, scaups, and some other diving ducks spend their winter off the southern coasts of Alaska.

What causes birds to migrate? Clearly, birds leave Alaska in winter to visit places where the winter weather is warmer, water is open, and food, particularly insects, is more available. But most birds begin migrating south before the temperature drops or food is scarce. In addition, the 100 plus species that remain in Alaska during winter never get the urge to migrate. As a general rule, birds from the far north "leapfrog" past birds of their own species during migration to winter in areas farther south; thus, they travel farther than seems necessary to find better weather and food.

Scientists have found that in most birds the urge to migrate is caused by changes in day length. However, some birds like crossbills and waxwings migrate in some years but not others. Apparently, these birds get the urge to migrate only when the weather is exceptionally cold or food is scarce.

For many years, biologists have been trying to figure out how birds are able to find their way during migration. Different birds seem to use different methods, and even an individual bird may use different methods under different weather conditions or in different areas. Many birds use the moon, sun, and stars to find their way. Scientists have found that birds will try to migrate in the wrong direction in a planetarium if the pattern of sun, stars, and moon in the planetarium sky are changed. Many birds follow mountain ranges, sea coasts, and rivers during migration.

migration routes

This map shows some of the bird migration routes from Alaska to other parts of the world. Can you name a bird that follows each route?

1. Semipalmated sandpiper, blackpoll warbler

2. Sandhill crane, peregrine falcon, some dabbling ducks

3. Swainson's hawk, buff-breasted sandpiper, violet-green swallow, western wood peewee, yellow warbler, Wilson's warbler

4. Northern pintail, mallard, American wigeon, greater white-fronted goose, long-billed dowitcher, tree swallow, orange-crowned warbler, yellow-rumped warbler, rosy finch

5. Red-throated loon, arctic loon, red-necked grebe, horned grebe

6. Arctic tern

7. Red phalarope, red-necked phalarope, Leach's storm-petrel

8. Golden plover, wandering tattler

9. Short-tailed shearwater

10. Bar-tailed godwit, bristle-thighed curlew

11. Wheatear, baird's sandpiper, yellow wagtail, arctic warbler


When clouds and bad weather obscure the sun, moon, stars, and landmarks, however, most birds are still able to navigate accurately. Some birds are able to detect changes in the earth's magnetic field and perhaps use this ability to keep on course. Sunspots and radar, which affect magnetic fields, are known to confuse some migrating birds. Other birds are able to detect very low frequency sounds over long distances. Low-frequency sounds, or infrasounds, are created by winds over mountain ranges and by pounding surf along a shore; possibly birds use these infrasounds to guide their migrations.

Most small birds like sparrows, warblers, and thrushes migrate mainly at night and stop during the day to feed and rest. Larger birds like raptors and herons often migrate by day. Loons, geese, gulls, terns, and shorebirds migrate at night and during the day. Most birds migrate at altitudes less than 7,000 feet, but migrating birds have been observed flying at altitudes over 20,000 feet. Most birds migrate at about 18 to 50 miles per hour. Most small perching birds travel at 18 to 25 miles per hour, while ducks and geese travel at 35 to 60 miles per hour. Migrating sandpipers have been clocked at 110 miles per hour, although 50 to 60 miles per hour is probably their usual speed.


Some birds (passerines, shorebirds, ducks, and geese) migrate in flocks, while other birds (particularly hawks and owls) often make the trip alone. Some species will flock only with other birds of the same species (waxwings, geese, and cranes) while other birds (shorebirds, thrushes, and warblers) may travel in flocks of mixed species. Flocking provides protection against predators and possibly a better chance of finding food, water, or cover.

Though birds may be able to survive winter better or find better places to nest by migrating, most migrations are difficult and hazardous journeys. During migration, thousands of birds are killed by storms and by flying into man-made obstructions like TV antennas, towers, skyscrapers, and lighthouses. In addition, as habitat change occurs rapidly throughout the world, migrating birds face more and more difficult times locating safe places to stop over to feed and rest. Drainage of potholes and marshes leaves migrating water birds without places to stop, while many forest areas that were once used by warblers and thrushes are now cities and farms with few trees.

tagged bird


Much of what is known about migration has been learned by banding birds. Leg bands with numbers are placed on birds so that individuals can be identified. Birds that are banded on the breeding grounds are recaptured during migration or on the wintering grounds (or vice versa), and thus, we learn where different birds go to nest and winter. Scientists have found that many birds go to almost the exact same places each year to nest and often go to the same wintering areas each year. In addition to leg bands, scientists also use neck collars and tags and sometimes dye birds' feathers so they can be identified from a distance.

Since birds travel across national and international boundaries, various agencies and treaties are responsible for their protection. Within the United States, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service protects migratory birds through Federal laws. International treaties with Canada and Mexico offer protection for some of the international travelers. By cooperating with other countries, governments can work to ensure that bird populations are carefully managed on both their nesting and wintering grounds.

Birds are not the only animals that migrate. Can you think of some others?*


1. Name some of Alaska's resident bird species.

2. Find out when birds migrate through your area. Go out on a night with a bright moon and watch for birds flying across the moon. Other good places to watch for migrations are along ridges, coastlines, rivers and lakes, through mountain passes, along peninsulas, and from island to island.

3. Find out if anyone in your area bands birds. If so, ask him or her to give your club a presentation or find out if you could observe him or her banding birds.

 *caribou, gray whales, humpback whales, salmon, and northern fur seals

Copycat Page

Migration Maze

bird icon

Migration Maze


Alaska Bird Migration Map


Do It!

Migration Math Madness


Objectives: Learn about the speeds and distances that shorebirds fly by making calculations. Become familiar with the geography of the Pacific Flyway.

Skills: Measuring, recording data, comparing, relating numbers to real events, multiplication

Subjects: Math, science, geography

Topics: Migration, mileage, maps

Grade Levels: 1-9

Setting: Classroom


Strings 20 cm long

(1/student or group)

Marking pens or crayons

Migration Math Maps for everyone


Before you begin your calculations, be sure to read the student page called Migration Math Madness.



1. Cut one piece of string that is 20 cm long. Hold the end of the string at the end of one of the migratory~ paths drawn on the map. Lay the string along the path so that it follows it exactly. At the end of the path, mark the string with a crayon or marker.

2. This string is now marked the same length as the line on the map. Compare the string with the mileage scale to find out how many miles the bird traveled.

3. Repeat steps 1 and 2 for the other paths shown on the map. Write your answers in the spaces below.

4. How long would it take these birds to reach their northern nesting grounds at 40 mpd and at 72 mpd?


Extensions: Research the migration path of another bird that uses the Pacific Flyway. Draw its migration path on this map and label it with the bird's name.


Adapted from Seasonal Wetlands. Santa Clara Audubon Society and Salt Marsh<>Manual: An Educator's Guide. San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge. 1990.


Migration Math Madness Map


Migration Math Madness Map

RECORD YOUR ANSWERS: Write the number of miles traveled by each bird

Western Sandpiper ________________________

Dunlin ________________________

Black Bellied Plover _______________________

Bird researched _________________


Read All About It:

Student Page

Migration Math Madness


Migrating birds travel long distances between wintering and nesting areas. Most birds do not fly nonstop between these areas although they arc capable of it. Timing of the migration is correlated with seasonal temperature changes. During the spring, most birds do not migrate north faster than the 35 degrees F isotherm (an imaginary line that represents 35 degrees F; north of this line is cooler than 35 degrees F and south of this line is warmer than 35 degrees F). This ensures that when the birds reach their nesting areas, the ground will not be frozen. In the fall, temperatures effect the amount of available food (i.e. insects and plants die off in cooler temperatures) so the birds keep moving south to where food is abundant enough to sustain their migration to the wintering areas.

Wetlands are important as they provide an area where the birds can feed and rest along the way. Without these local wetland areas, many birds would not get enough food energy to sustain them throughout their migrations.

The Pacific Flyway is the migration route chosen for this activity. Many of the shorebirds and waterfowl that we see are migrating along this flyway between their South American wintering areas and their nesting areas in the Arctic portions of Alaska and Canada In the United States. 28% of the total flyway wetlands are found in California, 15% in Oregon and 10% in Washington. If a bird flies between Argentina and Alaska, it will cover between 7-8,000 air miles. About 15% of the birds migrate at elevations below 10,000 feet, however, many have been observed at elevations about 29,000 feet by jet airline pilots. Birds fly faster the closer they get to their northern nesting grounds because there is less time to nest and raise young before freezing weather comes again.

Generally birds will fly for a few hours and then rest and feed for 1-3 days before migrating again. Birds migrating along the Central Flyway have been recorded flying 23 miles per day (mpd) up the Mississippi Valley, 40 mpd across southern Canada, 72 mpd to northern Canada, 116 mpd to Arctic Canada and those going on to Alaska at 150 mpd.


Lesson 1

What is a Bird?

Lesson 2


Lesson 3

Identifying Local Birds

Lesson 4

Bird Habits and Habitat

Lesson 5

Seasons and Migration

Lesson 6

Birds as Food

Lesson 7

Other Traditional Uses of Birds

Lesson 8

Traditional Stories and Beliefs about Birds


Whouy Sze Kuinalth
"Teaching Our Many Grandchildren"
Tauhna Cauyalitahtug
(To Make a Drum)
Math Story Problems
St. Lawrence Island Rain Parka Winds and Weather Willow
Driftwood Snowshoes Moose
Plants of the Tundra Animal Classification for Yup'ik Region Rabbit Snaring
The Right Tool for the Job
Fishing Tools and Technology
Blackfish Family Tree
Medicinal Plants of the Kodiak Alutiiq Archipelago Beaver in Interior Alaska Digging and Preparing Spruce Roots
Moose in Interior Alaska Birds Around the Village Dog Salmon


Handbook for Culturally Responsive Science Curriculum by Sidney Stephens
Excerpt: "The information and insights contained in this document will be of interest to anyone involved in bringing local knowledge to bear in school curriculum. Drawing upon the efforts of many people over a period of several years, Sidney Stephens has managed to distill and synthesize the critical ingredients for making the teaching of science relevant and meaningful in culturally adaptable ways."



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Alaska Native Knowledge Network
University of Alaska Fairbanks
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Fairbanks  AK 99775-6730
Phone (907) 474.1902
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Last modified August 18, 2006