Running’s for the Bird-Brained

Belted Kingfisher

Belted Kingfisher

Lately I’ve been including unplanned, brief stops into quite a few of my easy-pace runs. An observer might think Iam tired, struggling, erratic, or out of shape.


Eastern Bluebird

I’m not. I’m looking at birds.

Confession: I’ve become a bit of a running bird-watcher. I wonder if I’m the only multi-tasker out on the path? Soon after settling in near the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, where I am fortunate enough to do much of my training, I started spotting more than two birds in a bush’s worth of species on every run. The photos accompanying this post represent just some of the birds I spotted on today’s 6 mile trip along the Ohio and Erie Towpath trail.

When I could no longer identify many of the winged creatures I kept seeing, I bought the field guide Birds of Ohio by Stan Tekiela. It’s a well-illustrated, basic guide perfect for this birding novice, with a sport-specific surprise. A few pages in, I learned that our feathered friends are far finer endurance athletes than we people could ever hope to be.

Next time you’re ambling along a path and you spot a colorful warbler or hear the enticing song of a swooping flight of fancy, remember: Birds may be beautiful and inspiring, but make no mistake, those feathered rascals can beat a sorry, grounded runner’s butt at any distance.

Red-Winged Blackbird

Red-Winged Blackbird

Only the most skillful, talented, strong-minded, or, *cough* crazy *cough* ultramarathoners travel more than 100 miles during an event, fueling as best they can as they go and looking forward to the obligatory post-run feast.  Depending on their instinctive pattern, migrating bird species travel anywhere from a several hundred to 15,000 miles for the reward of a comfortable, season-long buffet.

Well, they do have wings. And helpful air currents. Without getting all Wright Brothers, whose own climate-friendly Ohio to North Carolina migration pattern I reversed late last year, we can’t do much about our non-aerodynamic upper limbs. OK, what else gets a bird to to its Finish line?

Birds of Ohio shares a few key training tips. “One of the many secrets of migration is fat. While we humans are fighting the battle of the bulge, birds intentionally gorge themselves to put on as much fat as possible while still being able to fly. Fat provides the greatest amount of energy per unit of weight.

“During long migratory flights, fat deposits are used up quickly, and birds need to stop to ‘refuel.’ … some birds require up to 2-3 days of constant feeding to build their fat reserves before continuing their seasonal trip.

Wood Ducks

Wood Ducks

“Birds migrating during the day use a combination of landforms, rivers, and the rising and setting sun to guide them in the right direction. … Studies show that some birds which migrate at night use the stars to navigate. Others use the setting sun, while still others such as doves use the earth’s magnetic fields to guide them north or south.”

All right, now we have a few clues. Many humans, including myself, could improve the practice of consuming fuel for a task’s energy requirements, rather than for a prescribed, time-dictated mealtime tradition or other psychosocial purpose. We could strengthen the connection to surroundings so navigation skills improve beyond the level of say, relying on a GPS device to drive to the next suburb. The Bird-Brained Training Method seems to recommend using instincts, which for many of us featherless sorts would require locating and accessing a deeply buried indigenous nature.

House Finch

House Finch

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron

How about also adopting the birds’ notion that endurance over distance is a way of migration, something natural to our livelihood and important for our species’ survival?

I wouldn’t argue with a separate theory currently gaining credibility, that humans have evolved for distance running, but how much farther could it get us if we took some of these “bird-brained” practices under our wings?


2 Responses to “Running’s for the Bird-Brained”

  1. 1 sneakersister April 17, 2009 at 7:40 am

    My two favorite birds are by far the Blue Heron and the Red-Winged Black Bird. You always know the good weather is here to stay when the Red-Winged Black Birds start singing.

    Good luck this weekend and safe travels!

  2. 2 Andrea April 17, 2009 at 8:49 am

    sneakersister, I really enjoy the Red-Winged Blackbird’s song, but am a little wary of them. Once I had one dive-bomb me twice at the same point during an out and back run – it was a bit out of “The Birds!”

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