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Desert Diary


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Every winter, numerous people flock to the desert Southwest to avoid the snow and cold of northern climes. These so-called "snowbirds" usually are admired as being smart to migrate to our warmer climate. On the other hand, some recent work on migratory birds versus non-migratory birds brings up an interesting point. With birds, at least, maybe the migrants are those who aren't smart enough to survive in cold weather.

A recent study in Europe looked at 134 species of birds, finding that those with bigger brains relative to body size are less likely to migrate southward during the cold season than those with smaller brains. The non-migrants also tended to be more flexible in their food habits. Migrating birds, moving long distances through poorly known lands, face tremendous dangers from storms and predators. Obviously, the advantages need to outweigh the disadvantages. If a bird has a better chance of survival by staying put, that's the smart thing to do. Now obviously what's true for birds isn't necessarily so for humans, but still, doesn't it kind of make you wonder?
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Contributor: Arthur H. Harris, Laboratory for Environmental Biology, Centennial Museum, University of Texas at El Paso.

Desert Diary is a joint production of the Centennial Museum and KTEP National Public Radio at the University of Texas at El Paso.


A raven, one of the brainy birds. Image by Gary M. Stolz, courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.