Marveling about Migration

Sev­er­al years ago, I was out on a long walk along a stretch of the Mis­sis­sip­pi Riv­er that flows between St. Paul and Min­neapo­lis. Since I was walk­ing alone and not in a rush, I stopped to rest and read the park signs. I’d prob­a­bly seen these signs dozens of times and walked on by. But lucky me. On this par­tic­u­lar day, I was pay­ing attention.

A new idea flut­tered out of this sign and cir­cled over­head. It start­ed me on an excit­ing jour­ney with my newest book, Fol­low the Fly­way: The Mar­vel of Bird Migra­tion. Here I am along the riv­er at the spot where it all began.

Sarah Nelson

 The sign explains that more than three hun­dred bird species — from tiny war­blers to giant pel­i­cans and almost half of North America’s water­fowl — migrate along the Mis­sis­sip­pi Fly­way. Wow, I remem­ber think­ing. That’s got to be bil­lions of birds. But what exact­ly was a fly­way? How did birds find them? Did all migra­to­ry birds fol­low fly­ways? And why, if I lived on such a major route, had I nev­er heard of them? Did oth­er adults already know this fly­way con­cept? I was full of questions.

Up until this moment, I con­fess I had a rel­a­tive­ly ele­men­tary-school-like under­stand­ing of how and why birds migrate. When our res­i­dent birds left the chilly north in autumn and returned to us at spring melt, I noticed and enjoyed these changes, but hadn’t real­ly giv­en a great deal of thought to the routes birds trav­eled or the skies and land­scapes they expe­ri­enced while they were away. Yet despite hav­ing more ques­tions than answers, I knew almost imme­di­ate­ly that I want­ed to write a sto­ry about fly­ways. The idea had to flap around in my head a few more years, but final­ly, it flut­tered down and landed.

Research­ing and writ­ing Fol­low the Fly­way was a joy­ful jour­ney for me. I learned many delight­ful new things about nests and eggs and charm­ing baby birds. I also cor­rect­ed my grade-school notion that birds fly like arrows north and south and dis­cov­ered answers to my ques­tions about how birds real­ly nav­i­gate their journeys.

Follow the Flyway
Text © Sarah Nel­son | Illus­tra­tion © Maya Hanisch,
Fol­low the Fly­way: The Mar­vel of Bird Migra­tion, Bare­foot Books 2023

I learned that migrat­ing birds fol­low lead­ers, land­marks, food sources, and water. They’re steered by sun and stars and pulled like mag­nets toward the poles. I learned that some birds — even very young ones — migrate all alone while oth­ers pow­er on togeth­er in giant flocks for hun­dreds of miles in a sin­gle day.

Through­out the process, I found that many oth­er adults were, indeed, unfa­mil­iar with fly­ways, too. Peo­ple often asked, “You mean flyaway, right?” Oth­ers assumed that “fly­way” was a whim­si­cal word I’d cre­at­ed to con­vey flight and mass move­ment — a high­way for birds — which is a great idea and no doubt the ori­gin of the term… So what are flyways?

Fly­ways are ancient, well-trav­eled migra­tion routes, fol­lowed by myr­i­ad migra­to­ry bird species, gen­er­a­tion after gen­er­a­tion. Fly­way routes exist all over the world. In North Amer­i­ca, we have four major fly­ways (the Pacif­ic, Cen­tral, Mis­sis­sip­pi, and Atlantic), stretch­ing from the Arc­tic through Mex­i­co, Cen­tral Amer­i­ca, the Caribbean, and beyond.


Follow the Flyway illustration
Text © Sarah Nel­son | Illus­tra­tion © Maya Hanisch,
Fol­low the Fly­way: The Mar­vel of Bird Migra­tion, Bare­foot Books 2023

Not every migra­to­ry bird fol­lows one of the major fly­ways, but most do. The water-rich Mis­sis­sip­pi Fly­way, in par­tic­u­lar, is a com­mon route for ducks, geese, and swans and many oth­er water-lov­ing birds like herons and egrets because of the ready avail­abil­i­ty of watery, plant-filled stopover sites. While some small birds do make non­stop migra­tions, most migra­to­ry birds rest peri­od­i­cal­ly along their way. The Mis­sis­sip­pi Riv­er and its lush, tree-filled val­leys, its trib­u­taries, and adja­cent wet­lands and grass­lands pro­vide birds with the habi­tats they need when it’s time to fuel up on fish and pondweed or sleep and preen in hid­den pock­ets of reeds.

It turns out, in fact, that migra­tion is often all about habi­tat. And if we think about migra­tion not sim­ply as extreme­ly long flights, but as jour­neys through a series of habi­tats, and that each habi­tat must be clean and safe and filled with the food, water, and bio­di­ver­si­ty that each new gen­er­a­tion of birds needs, then it changes us. It enrich­es our rela­tion­ships to the birds we love, and hope­ful­ly, enlivens and informs how we teach chil­dren to think about our human habi­tats. After all, we share them with the birds, who rely on us to pro­tect and pre­serve ecosys­tems every­where, so that birds, too, can live out their des­tinies and con­tin­ue to make their ancient voyages.

That more of us are not already well-versed in the ways of birds and fly­ways is no doubt a reflec­tion on our anthro­pocen­tric mod­ern world. We tend to think (and teach the chil­dren) that wildlife and wild phe­nom­e­na exist out­side of us. Nature is else­where. But birds flap in the face of such non­sense. They swoop down and bring wild nature right into our neigh­bor­hoods. They fill our lives and land­scapes with play­ful song and flight. Isn’t it excit­ing to con­sid­er that we share their flyways?

Fol­low the Fly­way:
The Mar­vel of Bird Migra­tion

writ­ten by Sarah Nel­son
illus­trat­ed by Maya Hanisch
Bare­foot Books, 8 August 2023

Jour­neys with twelve bird species as their babies hatch, grow, dab­ble and wad­dle, learn to honk, hoot, dive, and fly, and make their first migra­tion along the majes­tic fly­way. Illus­trat­ed back mat­ter delves into the mar­vels of migra­tion, the four North Amer­i­can fly­ways, and fun facts about each of the fea­tured birds. 

There are num­ber of oth­er love­ly migra­tion books for chil­dren, usu­al­ly fol­low­ing an indi­vid­ual bird or flock. Here are some of my favorites.

The Long, Long Jour­ney: The Godwit’s Amaz­ing Migra­tion
Writ­ten by San­dra Markle; Illus­trat­ed by Mia Posa­da
(Mill­brook Press, 2013)
Charts a young godwit’s non­stop flight from Alas­ka to New Zealand.

My Hap­py Year by E. Blue­bird
Writ­ten and Illus­trat­ed by Paul Meisel
(Hol­i­day House, 2020)
A series of sweet jour­nal entries by E. Blue­bird, record­ing its first year of life and first migration.

Nume­nia and the Hur­ri­cane: Inspired by a True Migra­tion Sto­ry 
Writ­ten and Illus­trat­ed by Fiona Hal­l­i­day
(Page Street Kids, 2020)
Fol­lows a whim­brel on a migra­tion full of dangers.

Tiny Bird: A Hummingbird’s Amaz­ing Jour­ney
Writ­ten by Robert Burleigh and Illus­trat­ed by Wen­dell Minor 
(Christy Otta­viano Books, 2020)
Flies with the small but mighty hum­ming­bird on its epic journey.

War­bler Wave
Writ­ten and Pho­tographed by April Pul­ley Sayre, with Jeff Sayre
(Beach Lane Books, 2018)
Weaves lyri­cal text and vivid pho­tos into a tale about a warbler’s year and migration

The Big Book of Birds
Writ­ten and Illus­trat­ed by Yuval Zom­mer
(Thames and Hud­son, 2019)
Not a migra­tion book per se, but fun and high­ly-read­able non­fic­tion about all things bird.

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David LaRochelle
7 months ago

I just read FOLLOW THE FLYWAY at my local inde­pen­dent book­store. What a great book! Fun text to read aloud, beau­ti­ful illus­tra­tions, and lots of great infor­ma­tion in the back mat­ter. Con­grat­u­la­tions, Sarah!

Sarah Nelson
Sarah Nelson
Reply to  David LaRochelle
7 months ago

Thank you so much, David! I’m so hap­py you enjoyed it.

Heidi Grosch
7 months ago

Do you know about the sim­ple pic­ture book “Sweep Up the Sun” by Helen Frost and Rick Lieder? (Can­dlewick, 2015). It is a poem with pho­tographs of birds in flight, and would be a great addi­tion to this list. I look for­ward to get­ting a copy of “Fol­low the Fly­way” to read and share!

Sarah Nelson
Sarah Nelson
Reply to  Heidi Grosch
7 months ago

Thank you for this rec­om­men­da­tion, Hei­di. Sweep Up the Sun looks gor­geous, and what an evoca­tive title!

Mark Zukor
Mark Zukor
6 months ago

Such a beau­ti­ful book, Sarah! “Fol­low the Fly­way” is a per­fect exam­ple of some­thing won­der­ful hap­pen­ing when you fol­low your curiosity!

Sarah Nelson
Sarah Nelson
Reply to  Mark Zukor
6 months ago

Thank you, Mark. Yes, curios­i­ty can be golden.