Bird migration is one of the most amazing natural phenomena, but it wasn’t always well understood. For centuries, people wondered where birds went in winter, and some came up with some truly bizarre explanations.
One of the most outlandish theories was that birds flew to the moon and back every year. This idea was inspired by a satirical novel written by French writer Cyrano de Bergerac in the 17th century, called A Voyage to the Moon.
In the novel, the protagonist travels to the moon using various methods, such as bottles of dew and fireworks. There, he meets a Spanish soldier who had arrived earlier using a flock of geese as his vehicle. The soldier tells him that he also saw other birds from Earth on the moon, such as swallows, nightingales, and woodcocks.
The novel was meant to poke fun at the scientific and religious beliefs of the time, but some people took it seriously and thought that it explained the mystery of bird migration. One of them was Charles Morton, an English minister and educator, who proposed the moon theory in the 1680s.
Morton rejected Aristotle’s widely accepted hibernation theory, and pointed out a major flaw in the theory that the birds simply migrated to another place on Earth: No one in Europe knew where they went. He also noted that birds accumulated fat before disappearing, which he thought was to sustain them on their long journey to the moon.
Of course, Morton’s theory was wrong, and modern science has revealed the complex patterns of bird migration across the globe, using techniques such as banding, radar, satellite tracking, and genetic analysis. We now know that birds migrate to different continents and oceans, driven by factors such as food availability, weather, and breeding opportunities.
Bird migration is also a remarkable feat of endurance, navigation, and adaptation. Some birds can fly for days without landing, cross vast distances over water or desert, and adjust to different climates and habitats. Bird migration is also threatened by human activities such as habitat loss, climate change, hunting, and collisions with buildings and power lines. Conservation efforts are needed to protect migratory birds and their flyways.
The story of bird migration to the moon is a fascinating example of how fiction can influence science, and how science can uncover the truth behind fiction. It also shows how much we still have to learn from nature and its wonders. As Audubon says: “Birds Tell Us to Act on Climate Pledge to stand with Audubon to call on elected officials to listen to science and work towards climate solutions.”
– Before we knew how bird migration worked, scientists had some truly wild theories, Popular Science, December 17, 2020
– Using moon shadows to track the transit of birds, Popular Science, February 25, 2022
– A Brief History of How Scientists Have Learned About Bird Migration, Audubon, Spring 2022
– 9 Astounding Facts About Bird Migration, Mental Floss