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Town Hall Seattle: Science Series

Town Hall’s Science series is dedicated to understanding the world around us. Whether we’re hearing from a legendary physicist or a UW graduate student, the Science series explores math, biology, chemistry, the environment, and so much more.

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Apr 18, 2023

For the past century, scientists and naturalists have been steadily unraveling the secrets of bird migration.

How and why birds navigate the skies, traveling from continent to continent — flying thousands of miles across the earth each fall and spring — has continually fascinated the human imagination, but only recently have we been able to fully understand these amazing journeys. Although we know much more than ever before, even the most enthusiastic birdwatcher may not know how we got here, the ways that the full breadth of scientific disciplines have come together to reveal these annual avian travels.

Flight Paths is the never-before-told story of how a group of migration-obsessed scientists in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries engaged nearly every branch of science to understand bird migration. Uniting curious minds from across generations, continents, and disciplines, bird enthusiast, and science writer Rebecca Heisman traces the development of each technique used for tracking migratory birds, from the first attempts to mark individual birds to the cutting-edge technology that lets ornithologists trace where a bird has been, based on unique DNA markers. Along the way, she touches on the biggest technological breakthroughs of modern science and reveals the almost-forgotten stories of the scientists who harnessed these inventions in service of furthering our understanding of nature (and their personal obsession with birds).

Rebecca Heisman has written for several organizations including the Audubon Society, the American Bird Conservancy, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the Wilson Ornithological Society, and the American Ornithological Society. Her first book, Flight Paths, tells the epic scientific story of how we know what we know about bird migration. When she’s not writing or birding, she can often be found knitting, playing with her son, or adding to her native plant garden.

Sally James is a writer and journalist who covers science and medical research. She has written for The Seattle TimesSouth Seattle Emerald, Seattle and UW Magazines, among others. For the Emerald, she has been focusing during the pandemic on stories about health and access for communities of color. In the past, she has been a leader and volunteer for the nonprofit Northwest Science Writers Association. For many years, she was a reviewer for Health News Review, fact-checking national press reporting for accuracy and fairness. She is most pithy on Twitter @jamesian.