There was a time in the early history of man when the nomadic lifestyle was the rule rather than the exception. Tribes and bands of our ancestors commonly moved from place to place in response to such forces as seasonal weather, the habits and abundance of wild game, the availability of wild edibles on which they also subsisted, and so on.
The development of primitive agriculture, man's ingenuity in using fire and the protective and sheltering byproducts of the hunt - like skins and furs - and using natural shelters, eventually made the nomadic lifestyle less universal. Today nomadic cultures are a very tiny minority among the world's people.
Not so for many of our wild neighbors. Because "nature abhors a vacuum," as the expression attributed to Aristotle goes, many creatures evolved to use available niches in the wild world where they could not survive year-round. Some move seasonally only relatively short distances. One example is the elk, or wapiti, which in the Rocky Mountains spends the warmer months at high altitude, but descends to lower and more hospitable elevations for the winter.
Other creatures move seasonally in much more dramatic dimensions. Many bird species come to mind, breeding and nesting in our northern latitudes, and migrating distances ranging from hundreds to thousands of miles to avoid the rigors of winter.
Unlike America's human snowbirds, for whom seasonal migration to Florida, Arizona or Texas is a matter of convenience, for these wild creatures it's a matter of survival.
Many migratory birds travel in large flocks, rather than solo or in family groups. Whether it be for the safety of numbers, or the leadership of experienced individuals, is not always clear. But migration in sizeable flocks apparently offers a survival advantage, otherwise it would not be the typical behavior that it is.
Departure time varies greatly. The majority of mourning doves, for example, are probably already beyond Minnesota's borders. Many ducks, geese and swans, on the other hand, will not leave us until many of our waters have frozen over.
One of the characteristics of flock migration is staging. In migratory terms this word basically means gathering or assembly prior to departure. With tongue in cheek, I suppose you could compare it to the start of cross-country bus tours, some of which are commonly associated with older Americans. When I see a coach-style bus in a parking lot, with a group milling around and a boarding line beginning to form, I'm pretty confident that they're staging for a trip to a destination such as the Black Hills, Grand Marais or Branson, Miss. (It could be just a group tour to a nearby casino, but I prefer the more glamorous possibilities.)
Ducks and geese are the wild creatures that a bird hunter is likely to think of first when you say "staging." Ringnecked ducks, which many hunters call "ringbills" for the conspicuous whitish ring near the tip of their bill, are a good example. These ducks, most abundant in our own Mississippi Flyway, and very common in the bags of Minnesota hunters, typically rear their young on smallish ponds and swampy openings in forested areas, rather than prairie landscapes.
Yet, prior to migration, they move to larger shallow lakes and wetlands, gathering in groups that may number from the dozens to the hundreds. At their staging peak, some large wetland complexes on our wildlife refuges may count them in the thousands.
Prior to migration is the only time they stage like this. There are few sounds that thrill this duck hunter more than the distinctive, jet-like "whooooosh" of their wings when a flock of ringnecks flies rapidly over his decoys.
Songbirds stage, too. Red-winged blackbirds are another migratory species that could not survive here once the typical cattail wetlands they call home have frozen over, and their food supply of chiefly insects is unavailable. Though they feed heavily on seeds and grains in the winter months, during our winters these are far less available than farther south.
Whereas robins gathering in pre-migration staging seem to be helter-skelter in their behavior, I have seen redwings execute what can only be called marvelous precision flight, with groups of many dozens flying in formation and executing changes of direction and speed as if all were of one mind and one body. This coordinated flight is genuinely amazing.
Many other species gather in pre-migration groupings, or stagings, before they finally depart for the wintry months that lie ahead for us. Fortunately, there are also many species of bird and beast that will stay with us during the nighttime of the year, helping to brighten and add cheer to the shorter days and longer nights - to say nothing of the snow and cold - to come.