For an illustrated version, see pages 12-13 in The Environmentor, Vol 2 No 2.
One Thanksgiving when I came home from college after surviving a seminar on Circadian Rhythms, my little brother asked me, “Why do birds fly south in the fall?” I hesitated to answer, wondering how I could explain day length cycles and brown fat stores to an 8 year old, so he gleefully answered his own riddle: “Because it's too far to walk!”
The Monarch butterflies have departed, our bison herds no longer migrate, but we see the passage of neotropical songbirds heading south. Our Canada geese take off in formation, their summer places sometimes taken by flocks from further north who think Oklahoma is a winter improvement. If you want more than a 3rd grade joke to introduce your lesson about seasonal migrations, here's a folktale whose variants* occur worldwide. I call the North American version “Flying Turtle.”
Turtle lived in a beautiful little pond. It had fresh water, sun and shade, pretty flowers growing around the shore, plenty of food. But turtle lived there all alone—because he couldn't stop talking.
Any thought that entered his mind, immediately exited his mouth. “What a lovely day! Nor cloudy like yesterday. Just the right temperature, a little breeze” (You can chatter on an on if you channel that aunt or neighbor who bores everyone to death.) “This is such a pretty pond! I wish I had company, but none of the other animals ever stay around for long.”
Just then, a pair of Canada geese circled down from the sky and settled in the pond. They had gotten separated from their flock by a storm, but were continuing on the route by themselves.
Turtle paddled up to them. “Welcome, welcome! It's so nice to have some company! How do you like my pond? I'd be happy to share it with you. You can stay here with me!” (on and on...)
When Turtle paused for just a second, one of the geese managed to say, “Sorry, but we're headed south for the winter.”
“South!” exclaimed Turtle. “I've heard about the south. They say it stays warm there, with plenty to eat and beautiful flowers all winter. That sounds so wonderful!” (on and on...)
The geese, who had been mates for many years, exchanged glances. One of them said, “We could take you with us.”
“What!” cried Turtle. “My legs are too short to walk that far. You're birds, you can fly! You can't carry me with your feet, you don't have talons. You can't carry me with your wings, you need them to fly!” (on and on)
“But we could carry you on a stick. We would hold the ends in our bills. You would bite onto the middle. We think you have very strong jaw muscles...”
“Yes! Yes! I could do that! Oh, thank you thank you. I will be the first turtle to fly south! I will be the first turtle to FLY! I'll be famous: Flying Turtle!!” (on and on)
True to their word, in the morning the geese brought a long strong stick. “Now hold on tight! If you open your mouth, you'll fall.” Turtle bit onto the middle of the stick, the geese took the ends in their bills, and off they flew. Turtle was flying!
As they flew over the meadow by the pond, a rabbit looked up. “What are those geese carrying on that stick? It's all muddy. Maybe it's a clump of pond weed.”
Turtle thought, “Silly rabbit, it's me, Flying Turtle!” But he didn't dare say a word.
They flew over a forest. Some deer looked up. “What are those geese carrying! It looks like an old boot they found in the pond.”
Turtle was annoyed. “Can't they see that it's me, Flying Turtle?” But he didn't dare speak.
They flew over a group of children playing outdoors. (You can name the park or school where you are telling this story.) The children looked up. “Why are those big birds carrying a sack of garbage on a stick?”
Turtle was furious. He yelled, “IT'S ME, TURrrtlllle...........” but as soon as he opened his mouth he began to fall. Down, down, down.... Splat.
He landed on the shore of a small muddy pond, hitting so hard that his shell cracked in many places. All he could do was plaster mud over it, and let the mud dry in the sun. The mud hardened into a hard layer, like the plaster cast a doctor puts on your broken arm.
Turtle did not fly south that winter. He burrowed into the mudbank and slept there.
In spring, Turtle dug out and washed off his mud cast. His shell had healed! But you could still see where the cracks had been.
Ever since then, they say, turtles have never flown south with the birds. They hibernate in burrows until spring. And they hardly ever make a sound.
*Many cultures worldwide tell variants of this story. This version touches on vanity and impulse control. A version in which Turtle finally can't help asking aloud “Are we there yet?” counsels patience. There is even a version from Haiti in which Turtle wants to fly north with New York City pigeons but, realizing he may never see his island friends again, can't help calling “Bye bye.”
After telling this story, you can invite listeners' questions such as:
Why DO birds migrate?
How do they know when to go south or north?
How can they tell where to go?
Why do some birds fly in formation (V of Canada geese) while others travel in huge flocks?
What are the advantages of traveling in a large group?
Questions you can ask them:
What are some birds who migrate? Where do they go?
What is a “flyway”?
What do they need along the way?
Why do they leave northern nesting areas, and travel so far south?
For an illustrated version of this story, see pages 12-23 of The Environmentor Vol 2 issue 2