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A flock of brent geese flying in front of the moon

Before tracking technology and the advent of global travel were able to untangle the mysteries of migration, people had some fairly outlandish ideas about what happened to birds that vanish each season.

Dark-bellied brent geese, dunlins, godwits and many other migratory birds spend the winter on our coastlines then start to disappear in March, then reappear in the autumn.

We now know they’ve flown to northerly breeding grounds thousands of miles away. But it’s not surprising that our ancestors tried to make sense of this extraordinary natural phenomena.

Dark-bellied brent geese in flight at sunset

In Ancient Greece, Pliny and Homer blamed cranes’ annual departure on their summer habit of fighting Pygmy tribes in distant lands.

And while Aristotle was accurate about some aspects of bird migration, he also believed many hibernated in holes in the ground or simply transformed into other kinds of birds from season to season.

A group of 7 common cranes flying across the sky

In northern Europe imaginative ancestors made the logical assumption that goose barnacles were an early stage of development of barnacle geese since the birds appeared every autumn without any evidence of hatching and rearing chicks.

Barnacle geese

Barnacle geese

Goose barnacles

Goose barnacles

In the 16th century it was thought swallows dived to the bottom of ponds to hibernate in the mud, and 100 years later Charles Morton, an English academic, even suggested they migrated to spend winter on the moon.

Even as late as the 18th century famed naturalist Gilbert White thought it was more probable that swallows hibernated locally than flying long distances to warmer climates.

A turning point in our understanding of bird migration came in 1822 with the arrival in the German village of Klutz of a white stork with a central African arrow stuck right through its neck.

There have been at least 25 of these arrow-impaled birds documented as arriving in Germany. They demonstrated beyond doubt that storks were migrating long distances each year, rather than hibernating or changing form in winter.

You can see the first and most famous one, stuffed, today at the University of Rostock.

Rostocker Pfeilstorch
The Rostocker Pfeilstorch: Zoologische Sammlung der Universität Rostock via Wiki Commons


Find out more about our migratory birds’ stories in our blog post Magical Migration or on our Meet the Birds pages.