The arctic tern, a sleek gray-and-white bird with a wide wingspan, black-capped head, and a body scarcely bigger than my fist, migrates every year from the Arctic to Antarctica and back. Coasting on air currents, terns snatch fish from the ocean and eat, sleep, and mate on wing.  One tagged bird tracked nearly 60,000 miles in its annual migration—a distance equal to flying twice around the belly of the earth.

How birds like the arctic tern navigate these earth-spanning flights remains beyond the full understanding of science. Some birds seem to navigate by scent. Scientists have discovered iron-rich cells in the heads and beaks of other birds that they assume orient birds toward the earth’s magnetic poles. Most recently, scientists discovered a certain protein in the eyes of zebra finches that interacts with light in a way that allows them, scientists surmise, to see the earth’s magnetic fields.

Computer generation of the Earth's magnetic fieldsHuman beings cannot see these fields, and even our approximations are chaotic and strange. In computer simulations, geomagnetic field lines in neon colors tangle and splay outward, clustered generally around what we know as our North Pole and our South Pole.

Birds’ eyes may serve as a wayfinder, National Geographic notes, but this only indicates direction—to find their place on this vast earth, birds also need a map. 

Evidence suggests that birds, like ancient sailors, orient themselves by the stars. In a classic study, birds caged outdoors, able only to look up, still hopped southward in the fall months and northward in the spring. The birds were then held in a planetarium, constellations projected on the ceiling. When the stars were reversed, previously northbound birds turned south, straining toward their false north star.

Birds’ remarkable migration is so difficult to understand precisely because it depends on this combination of complex senses. Birds feel the pull of the compass, and they also cast their eyes upward for a map.

We would be wise to do this too.

Where does our earth’s magnetic field draw us? I have followed mine across borders, unable sometimes to name the life I chase, only when I know I am drawing closer. In learning, in listening, in standing up for others or just buying them groceries, I feel oriented correctly—perhaps still distant from the place I hope to land, but on my way.

I find my bearings, meanwhile, in the fixed points of light around me. Activists and movements challenged dehumanizing systems long before they made headlines. I look up: their stars intersect in constellations of experience. As I keep them in my line of sight, the pull I feel takes shape and direction.

It takes both a compass and a map to find our way. Let us sense, like the birds, our direction in this world; with the stars, our place and path in it.


  1. Kyric Koning

    I love how you connect the birds’ situation to our own navigation of life. That we too are pulled towards where our hearts lead and also are guided by fixtures already placed. A fascinating bit of ecology to point toward a deeper wisdom. It resonates deep with me.

  2. Alex Johnson

    Arctic terns always make me think of Okay For Now, where they are also used as a metaphor (but it’s a little more focused on the bird’s helplessness). I like the hopefulness and weight of this one: recognizing the intricate forces that draw us into the rhythms and ebbs of the world.


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