Using a Planetarium, Scientist Shows Some Birds Navigate by Stars

Professor Stephen T. Emlen of Cornell University in the planetarium. (The indigo buntings are in the funnels around the projector.)
Photo courtesy of Cornell University.

Caught in their funnels,
the indigo buntings
have no choice
but looking up.
the North Star
clings to a dome
from which the sea air
is missing.

It is always night:
the time of flying.

With inked feet,
the birds stamp out
the direction
of desire,
furiously marking
the ancient route
towards birth

or away from it.

Everything hinges on a single
point of certainty
and its few attendant
clusters of stars.

The scientist pulls a star
from the known sky

then another

and another

so that the Little Dipper
disconnects from its center

and Cassopeia dissolves away
from the reassuring “W”
children know.

The birds watch
the final constellations
ground down into a grit
of random stars

any one of which
may lead
to an island
in an ocean
somewhere beneath their feet.


Emlen, S.T. 1975. The stellar-orientation system of a migratory bird. Scientific American, (Cover story) 233:102-111.

  1. oldwolfmcmlxiii said:

    Fascinating 🙂 Love it

  2. This seems so sad to me … but so relevant. The lights of cities are taking away the stars from humans and animals alike, and we are left to find our way. Great topic for a poem!

    • You raise some interesting points I hadn’t even considered, J.A.! I wonder how/if light pollution has impacted the indigo buntings’ migration. Maybe I’ll take a stab at writing a poem about light pollution. Cheers!

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