Denali National Park and Preserve, established in 1917 as Mount McKinley National Park, is known the world over for its stunning scenery, wild and remote frontier regions, and Denali — at 20,320 feet, the highest point in North America. The park is a favorite tourist destination, as evidenced by the roughly four hundred thousand intrepid travelers who journey there each year.
We humans are not the only nature travelers, however, who have been passing through Denali National Park for generations. It’s estimated that 167 species of birds representing six continents visit the 6,028,203-acre park at one time or another over the course of a year. But now, new evidence suggests the birds have been doing it a lot longer than we Homo sapiens (a mere two hundred thousand years old) have. They’ve been flying there for millions of years — at least seventy million of them, or more.
Favorite avian vacation destination
The evidence supporting the long use of the region that is now Denali National Park as a favorite visitation site by birds came from Dr. Tony Fiorillo, a paleontologist and curator for the Museum of Nature and Science in Dallas, Texas. His findings were reported in his academic paper titled “Bird tracks from the Upper Cretaceous Cantwell Formation of Denali National Park, Alaska, USA: a new perspective on ancient northern polar vertebrate biodiversity” that was published in the Journal of Systematic Paleontology in January 2011. From 2006 to 2010, Dr. Fiorillo led digs in Denali. He and his teams were surprised when they unearthed bird tracks dating back seventy million years. And while many of the tracks were from bird species already known to science, two were made by birds slightly different from the rest.
Fiorillo named these two, new bird species Magnoavipes denaliensis (honoring the native Koyukon Athabascan name for the region) and Gruipeda vegrandiunis (meaning “tiny one”). His discoveries are significant for two reasons: first, because similar tracks have shown up across the United States and Asia, there’s a good chance that prehistoric birds used Alaska as a seasonal nesting ground, just as modern birds do today. Second, his findings add to the proof that Alaska was once “home” to an impressive range of bird species.
It’s the use of the word “home” in this instance that makes me stop to wonder how we nature travelers — human and nonhuman, alike — should use the word when discussing “native” species. Often, when writing about the animals in my home state, I struggle with whether the birds who pass through Wisconsin year after year, decade after decade, millennium after millennium, should be considered “natives,” if they don’t stay here year-round.
For example, Canada geese, tundra swans, sandhill cranes, and whooping cranes — to name just a few bird species — use Wisconsin as a stopover on their ways north and south and east and west. Located on the Mississippi Flyway, my state’s skies can be very busy at times. The comings and goings of these migratory birds seem to define the seasons for those of us who live here; in fact, without seeing the first, single robin in our own backyards of March, the tens of sandhill cranes in the farmers’ fields of July, or the hundreds of thousands of Canada geese in the Horicon National Wildlife Refuge of October, it just wouldn’t be spring or summer or fall here.
But while these birds seem to be a huge part of the natural world for us, are they “natives”? Is Wisconsin their “home”?
I, too, have traveled to places I’ve liked more than once; I even visited Churchill, Manitoba, Canada, three times. And I have to say I’ve begun to feel a sense of familiarity when I’m there; I feel “at home.” But if the tundra birds that have seen me passing through could be put in my shoes, would they regard me as a “native”?
For a nature traveler, then, does the definition of “native species” relate to the place where you nest, or to the one that lives within your heart — the place you return to, year after year?
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,