Bernd Heinrich.

The Homing Instinct: Meaning and Mystery in Animal Migration

Meaning and Mystery in Animal Migration


William Collins

An imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers

1 London Bridge Street

London SE1 9GF

This eBook first published in Great Britain by William Collins in 2014.

First published in hardback in the US by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2014.

Text and illustrations copyright Bernd Heinrich 2014

Cover photograph Antagain / Getty Images

The author asserts his moral right to be identified as the author of this work.

A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.

All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. By payment of the required fees, you have been granted the non-exclusive, non-transferable right to access and read the text of this e-book on-screen. No part of this text may be reproduced, transmitted, down-loaded, decompiled, reverse engineered, or stored in or introduced into any information storage and retrieval system, in any form or by any means, whether electronic or mechanical, now known or hereinafter invented, without the express written permission of HarperCollins.

Source ISBN: 9780007594054

Ebook Edition August 2014 ISBN: 9780007594061

Version: 2015-04-22



Title Page





Cranes Coming Home


Getting to a Good Place

By the Sun, Stars, and Magnetic Compass

Smelling Their Way Home

Picking the Spot



Architectures of Home

Home-making in Suriname

Home Crashers

Charlotte II: A Home Within a Home

The Communal Home


The In and Out of Boundaries

Of Trees, Rocks, a Bear, and a Home

On Home Ground

Fire, Hearth, and Home

Homing to the Herd


Further Reading



Books by Bernd Heinrich

About the Publisher


ABOUT A DECADE AGO I STARTED PULLING TOGETHER BITS and pieces on the homing topic and in 2011 had a book manuscript scheduled for publication. I was then living at camp in Maine, where I had done my fieldwork on bumblebees for years; lately my work involved feeding ravens with cow carcasses in the winter, and I then got interested in beetles that bury mouse carcasses in the summer. Soon the topic of recycling of animal carcasses of all sorts seemed more urgent than the scheduled book about getting to and living in a particular place. So, I put writing about homing on hold. By the time I again picked up my pencil, it seemed as though everything I thought of or had an interest in had, in one way or another, started to have a bearing on home and homing. In the meantime I had also been confronting personal issues of homing, and they seemed to take on increasingly similar forms to what I was reading about in animals.

I had already left my academic position in Vermont and wanted to return home to live in Maine, possibly in the home to which I had bonded strongly as a child. I had planted a row of trees there about thirty-five years ago. Those trees, now huge, brought back many memories related to them. They reminded me of my father, who had liked them, probably because he had strong feelings for a row of chestnut trees that also lined the way to his old home in the old country that he had often talked about. Because I had written a book about my father, and not also one about my sisters or my mother, I had come into the disfavor of both. There had been parent-offspring conflict before my mother died, and then the house stood empty. So then there was also sibling rivalry over the estate. It seemed like being in a real-life situation of the sociobiology theories, in an almost perfect rendition of a naked mole rat colony where one of the family finds a big tuber, and the others claim it as theirs, and then a vocally assertive member establishes herself as the matriarch. I realized then that the difference between what can happen to a human and to a naked mole rat family is mainly one of terminology. This thus provided the topic of home and homing a much wider perspective.


Our passionate preoccupation with the sky, the stars, and a God somewhere in outer space is a homing impulse. We are drawn to where we came from.

Eric Hoffer

With all things and in all things, we are relatives.

Native American (Sioux) proverb

I LEANED ON THE SHIPS RAILING AT THE STERN, A TEN-YEAR-OLD boy with virtually no notion of where my family might be going. I heard the deep roar of the engines, the whine of the wind, and the rush of the churning water. I felt adrift, as though carried along like a leaf in a storm, feeling the rocking, the spray, and the endlessness and power of the waves. I had no notion that we were among multitudes who had made hard decisions to court the great unknown, or any clear idea of why my family had left the only home Id known in a forest in Germany. The only picture of what our new home might be was that we might find magical hummingbirds, and fierce native tribes armed with knives, bows and arrows, spears, and tomahawks.

Security for me was the memory of where we had come from, specifically a little cabin in the woods and a cozy arbor of green leaves that enclosed me like a cocoon where I could see out but nobody could see in. It meant a feeling of kinship with the tiny brown wren with an upright stubby tail that sang so exuberantly near its snug feather-lined nest of green moss hidden under the upturned roots of a tree in a dark forest. I had in idle moments in my mind inhabited that nest. I found, too, the nest of an equally tiny long-tailed tit. This little birds home was almost invisible to the eye because it was camouflaged with lichens that matched those on the thick fork of a tall alder tree where it was placed.

The ocean all around was a spooky void. But then, after several days at sea, a huge white bird with a black back appeared as if out of nowhere, and it followed us closely. I saw its dark expressionless eyes scanning us. It was an albatross. It skimmed close over the waves and sometimes lifted above them, circled back, and then picked up momentum to again skim alongside our boat. It followed us for hours, maybe even days.

The albatross was big and flew without beating its wings. Years later I wondered if, even in the featureless open ocean where so much looked the same every hour and every day, it may have known where it was all along. How do we find our home and recognize it when we find it? These questions were inchoate then, but given the examples of other animals, they put many ideas of home and homing in context.

Later, as a graduate student, I read that pigeons could return home to their loft even when released in unfamiliar territory, and that some other birds could navigate continental distances using the sun and the stars. There were few answers to how they did it. But I read about researchers at Cornell University who attached magnets to the heads of pigeons and got them all confused. Donald Griffin, my scientific hero (who had discovered how bats can snatch silent moths out of the air in a totally dark room that had wires strung all over the place), was releasing seagulls over forest where they could never have been before and then tracking the birds flight paths by following them in an airplane. Most of his birds turned in circles before some of them flew straight, although why was not clear. Searching for a thesis problem to work on, I wrote to ask him if birds passing through clouds might keep in a straight line by listening to the calls flocks make while migrating. He replied in a long, thoughtful letter to let me know that this idea was too simplistic, and that one should not discount much more complicated mechanisms. That was excellent advice. I did not then have the means to solve any of these puzzles, but over the years I have kept in touch with the evolving field of animal navigation and its relevance to the need for a home.

For other animals and for us, home is a nest where we live, where our young are reared. It is also the surrounding territory that supports us. Homing is migrating to and identifying a suitable area for living and reproducing and making it fit our needs, and the orienting and ability to return to our own good place if we are displaced from it. Homing is highly specific for each species, yet similarly relevant to most animals. And the exceptions are illuminated by the rule.

The image of that albatross took on more meaning decades later, after I learned that the species mates for life and returns to the same pinpoint of its home, on some island shore where it was born, perhaps fifteen hundred kilometers distant. During the years when it grows to adulthood it may never be in sight of land. Seven to ten years after having left its home, it returns there to nest. It chooses to go there because of its bond. When a pair eventually have a chick in a nest of their own, each parent may travel over fifteen hundred kilometers of ocean to find a single big meal of squid, and after gathering up a full crop, it then flies home in a direct line; it knows where it is at all times.

The broad topic of homing subsumes many biological disciplines. In order to show the connections among all animals and us, I have interpreted the traditional use of an animals territory, or home territory, simply as home. We think of home primarily as a dwelling, but in order to be inclusive with other animals, I here consider their dwellings to be their homes as well. My application of the same terms to different species is deliberate for the sake of scientific rigor and objectivity, to acknowledge the continuity between our lives and those of the rest of life. I realize that this smacks to some of anthropomorphism, a pejorative term that has been used for the purpose of separating us from the rest of life. The behaviors involved in homing include drives, emotions, and to some extent also reason.

A home makes many animals lives possible: home is life-giving and sought after with a passion to have and hold. We humans are not thinking much about home for animals when we confine them in cages devoid of almost everything they need except air, food, and water in a dispenser, or when we destroy the habitat that contains the essentials of home for many species. So I begin our exploration of home and its implications with the example of the common loons, Gavia immer, birds that may live for decades. The collaborative study by three biologists, Walter Piper, Jay Mager, and Charles Walcott, reveals how important home can be enough for fights to the death.

Loons spend winters in the open ocean, but a pair migrate from it and across the land back to their home, a specific northern pond or lake, to nest along its shore in the spring and raise one or two chicks out on the water. Starting almost immediately after ice-out and almost until freeze-up, camp owners along a lake routinely see their pair of loons year after year. It had long been assumed that the same individuals return each year and live as monogamous pairs on their strongly defended home territory. Huge surprises were in store after 1992, when techniques (using a boat, a strong light, and a net) were developed to capture loons and mark them with colored leg bands to identify individuals. In a long-term study of a population of loons in Wisconsin in a cluster of about a hundred lakes, it turned out that a pair of loons indeed returned year after year to their home. However, they were not always the same birds. As expected, given their longevity and reproductive potential, there were many floaters, those still without a home, and some of them routinely replaced members of a pair.

The floaters regularly visited different pairs at home at their respective lakes, and spirited vocal meetings resulted. These seldom led to fights, but they were not just friendly visits. These floaters were at first thought to invade others home grounds in order to make extra-pair parenting attempts (which in males refers to extra-pair copulations and in females to egg dumping into the others nests). However, DNA fingerprinting of the young loons from four dozen families produced not a single incident of extra-pair parenting. Instead, the visits by floaters were of an entirely different nature. They had an almost literally deadly purpose. The floaters were scouting making assessments of both the worthiness of the others real estate and the defensive capabilities of the resident males to gauge the possibility for future takeovers.

Loons nest on the ground along shorelines, if islands are not available. Shorelines, if low, are risky nesting places, not only because of potential flooding in early spring, but also because they are within easy reach of raccoons, skunks, and other predators. Most birds test what is a good home by direct experience success in raising a brood there. Or, like the loons, they assess the experience of others: whether or not chicks have been raised there. So, if the territory does yield young, a floater, who apparently finds this out through scouting, may risk a fight in an attempted takeover to remove the defending male (if he achieves takeover, he automatically gets to keep the female who remains on her home). But the floater can risk an attack only when he is about four or five years old. When he is in prime physical condition and has much to gain namely, a potential lifetime of home ownership it makes sense to risk the battle. The older territory owner might then fight to the death, presumably because he has much to lose, and almost no chance to gain another home.

Loons may seem extreme in the lengths to which they go to secure a home, as do other birds that risk the hazards of migrating thousands of kilometers. Yet, in the movie I watched with rapt attention on board ship on the way to America at age ten, people on ponies shot arrows at others on a wagon train. All were emotionally charged, because each was fighting for something sacred, and therefore each was willing to risk his life, for defending or wanting a home.

We have learned much about thousands of animal species that twice annually risk their lives to migrate to an exact pinpoint, such as an oceanic island in the case of the albatross or a pond in the vastness of a continent in the loons. They open a window with a broad view onto our unending quest into the mysterious minds of animals, and in the process they illuminate our own. How does one tie the vastness that includes other animals, and so much that affects us personally and socially, together into a story?

Writing this book reminded me of when, after riding more or less unconscious in the slipstream of history for over fifty years, I started putting down stones chosen from a vast array of differently shaped fieldstones to build a house foundation. I couldnt chop them to size or knock the edges off so that they would fit into the inevitable empty spaces to make neat connections. Nor did I want to shape them, like bricks, to make a tidy but artificial structure. The stones found in nature, like facts, are endlessly numerous, wild, and complex. As the famous British geneticist and evolutionary biologist J.B.S. Haldane quipped, My own suspicion is that the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose. I hope to give here a view of some of the stones of homing, and their origins, and how they apply in real life.

Homing is central to many aspects of our and other animals lives. To understand the meaning of home, like any other phenomenon, it helps to step back and see from anothers world. Animals give more than just clues to the why and the how of homing. They show what is possible, what has been tested, and what has worked over millions of years of evolution.

In this book I cannot hope to provide an in-depth treatment of any issue. My viewpoint is wide, and admittedly personal. Thousands of scientific references are possible for any one topic, and I am not an expert on any topic. Those references I cite are in no way meant to be the specific last word on the topic. They tend to be those I am most familiar with. I apologize for all of the amazing stories and all the details that I have left out. I have tried to speculate freely, and I hope that this will open discussion, not close it.



A skull I have lying on my desk is as big around as a somewhat flattened coffee mug, but it comes to a point at the front and has two large eye sockets. The bone on the top of the head is sculpted in ridges and furrows and looks like weathered stone. Seen from the back, the skull has a backward-opening hole on each side. The holes anchored the animals powerful jaw muscles. Between them is a much smaller hole. I am looking through this hole (foramen magnum) for the brain cavity, but this large head contains scarcely any brain at all, just an extension of the dorsal nerve cord that runs up from the neck.

Its the skull of a snapping turtle, a female who met her end as she was crossing the road to dig a hole in the gravel to lay her clutch of eggs. As in previous years, she had come from her bog a mere hundred meters away.

The local snapping turtle is no great wanderer. But two sea turtles the green turtle, Chelonia mydas, and the leatherback, Dermochelys coriacea are renowned for migrations spanning entire oceans. The leatherback as an adult feeds in northern cold waters but nests on tropical beaches. It can weigh up to a ton, and although the skull of one that I had the opportunity to examine was as big as a basketball, the cavity holding its brain was, like the snapping turtles, only a slight expansion at the end of the vertebral column. It could barely have held a walnut. The greens could have held two hazelnuts. Their skulls hardly differ from that of any turtle, whether of a species alive now or one that lived 215 million years ago, at a time at least three times more distant than that of the last dinosaurs.

The minute dimensions of some animals brains are as astounding as the homing capacity of some of their owners. Like albatrosses, sea turtles of various species lay their eggs in colonies with others of their kind on specific ocean beaches. After the young hatch from the eggs buried in the sand, they head for the water and spend years at sea. They may travel thousands of kilometers, and then, a decade or two later when they are ready to lay their eggs, they return to their birthplace. They mate in the water nearby, and the females then come ashore to dig their nest holes in the sand and to drop in their eggs. How are they able to find their old home after years of wandering in the vastness of the oceans, when we, if taken blindfolded to and then released in unfamiliar woods, would, despite our highly sophisticated massive brains, be as likely to head off in a wrong as a right direction? To get around in unknown territory most of us need a map with which to find at least one known fixed feature that we can both see on the ground and locate on that map, and a compass.

What knowledge and what kind of urges does it take for some birds to fly nonstop for nearly ten thousand kilometers, spending all day and night on the wing, until their body weight halves as they not only burn up all of their bodys food stores but even sacrifice muscle, digestive tract, and other entrails almost everything except their brains?


If feeling fails you, vain will be your course.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Faust

MILLIE AND ROY ARE A PAIR OF SANDHILL CRANES THAT STAY for most of the year in Texas or Mexico but travel north in April and have for at least fifteen years nested and raised their one or two offspring, known as colts, in a small bog in the Goldstream Valley near Fairbanks, Alaska. Their home is adjacent to the home of my friends George Happ and his wife, Christy Yuncker. George was an insect physiologist and chairman of the Zoology Department at the University of Vermont where I was hired in 1980, and he later moved to the University of Alaska and the land of the Iditarod, where the two built their home in the wild land near Fairbanks. They invited me to visit them and their cranes, and I was eager to do it.

The thousands of square kilometers of central Alaskas permafrost-covered taiga consist of stunted blue-green spruce and white birch, with a groundcover of green-yellow moss and twiggy Labrador tea whose evergreen leaves curl at the edges and have a soft beige fuzz on their undersides. Chalky lichen and small shiny cranberry leaves decorate a thin black soil overlying the permafrost that can extend thirty meters down. In this expanse, there are many bogs or pingos, which are the result of an ice dome (groundwater that freezes into an upwardly bulging ice lens) that has melted and created a depression where a pond or a lake is then formed. After a few centuries, a floating mat of vegetation grows in from the edges to create a floating bog. Such pingo bogs have become the favorite home sites of sandhill cranes.

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