Guest Voices: Everyone Looks Up

Our guest post this week is by Katie Nagy, Public Observatory Coordinator at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. 

The constellation Leo; Credit: Katie Nagy

The National Air and Space Museum celebrates Explore the Universe Family Day each year in April.  For the past several years, the theme has been Everyone Looks Up.  Throughout the Museum, visitors engage in activities that help them see the universe through the eyes of people they’ve never met and from places they’ve never visited.  They experience performances, participate in activities, talk to astronomers, and look through telescopes.  The program gives them a chance to think about astronomy as a cultural activity as well as a scientific activity.

To help our visitors get to know their night sky better, the day begins with a planetarium show featuring Star Stories from Around the World.  Visitors see the stars, planets, and constellations that are visible from Washington, DC after the sun goes down.  Then the stars move overhead and everyone sees the constellations as they appear from the equator and the southern hemisphere.  Some constellations are visible in both the northern hemisphere and the southern hemisphere, like Leo and Orion which are visible here in April.  Other stars can only be seen from certain areas; the southern constellations Carina and Piscis Austrinus, for example, are visible to sky watchers in Africa but not to those in the northern hemisphere.

Even though there are some constellations that we all see, the pictures that we imagine in the stars aren’t necessarily the same as the ones that people in other parts of the world imagine.  The pictures people see and the stories they tell reflect characters and imagery that are important in their culture.

This time of year, the constellation Leo, the lion, is nearly straight overhead in Washington, DC once it gets dark.  People from many different regions and cultures saw a lion in these stars and associated them with royalty and with the Sun.  To the Romans, Leo represented the lion slain by the hero Hercules as the first of his twelve labors.  The sphinx, combining the body of a lion with a human face, may have represented the symbolic association of Egyptian kings with the regal constellation of Leo.  Sky watchers in India, the Middle East, and Mexico also saw a lion in these stars.  Take a close look at your star chart and you’ll see star names in Arabic and Latin labeling the parts of the lion.  Regulus, the brightest star in Leo, is the Latin word for “little king.”  Another prominent star, Denebola, has an Arabic name meaning “the lion’s tail.”

It’s interesting to see the stars of a familiar constellation through the eyes of people from across the world, and to learn what those stars represent to them.  Sometimes the stories are very different, but there are some striking similarities that can show us how much we have in common as people of Earth.

Guest Voices: Bird Navigation by the Stars

Our guest post this week is by Emily Murgia, Education Programs Specialist with the Friends of the National Zoo.

For centuries of travel, man has looked to the skies for guidance and direction.  But we’re not the only ones.  Studies show that birds, too, use stars to find their way.

Bird migration is the seasonal movement of birds.  Birds migrate to find food or to breed, and may travel long distances to do so. But whether the trip is long or short, it is not so much the destination but the journey.  How exactly do birds know how to get from point A to point B?

Migrating shorebirds

Migratory birds use a variety of cues to know where to go.  For example, some use prevailing wind patterns.  Wind patterns are seasonal, so birds can travel with the wind to reach their destination.  Some birds use landmarks in the form of topographic features (i.e. coastlines, rivers, mountain ranges) to navigate.  Others may use the small grains of a mineral called magnetite that can be found just above their nostrils.  Like a compass, these minerals react to the Earth’s magnetic field and can tell the bird which direction is true north.  Day fliers, on the other hand, use the sun and its position in the sky to tell direction, utilizing the setting sun to identify west.

Then there are the night fliers.  Along with a combination of the methods described above, these birds also use the stars to navigate.

Indigo bunting

The indigo bunting, a small songbird of North America’s east coast, is one such star gazer.  Having studied the indigo bunting, scientists have determined that birds start to learn the star patterns around the North Star starting at a very young age.  Having memorized the constellations that surround this reliable due north icon, birds can migrate at night.

Birds learn the constellations at a young age; those birds that are unable to observe the stars early on are then unable to migrate successfully.  Not seeing the stars is becoming a problem late in a bird’s life, as well.  As cities grow, so does their light emittance.  Light pollution is clouding the skies and is creating dangerous mazes of reflective glass buildings for the birds to navigate.

Birds all over the world are experiencing difficulties migrating.  Along with light pollution, habitat destruction is affecting the birds’ ability to travel, limiting feeding and resting space, as well as homes.  The Smithsonian’s Migratory Bird Center is doing its part to “foster greater understanding, appreciation, and protection” for migrating birds.

The National Zoo is home to many African birds.  Come visit us in DC to see hornbills, pygmy falcons, cranes, and more!  Help us build our African animals a new home and get some new neighbors! Learn more by visiting with our African Animal Ambassadors on weekends in May or visiting our website to find out how you can help.