Moving Along the Mississippi

Figure 1: Redheaded ducks in Texas

Figure 1: Redheaded ducks in Texas. This species migrates down the Mississippi River. Photo courtesy of Birdchick

Big rivers like the Mississippi can be found around the world, and they are a symbol and mechanism of change. They move not only water, but animals, people and culture, too.

Our Mississippi stretches for 2,350 miles and connects Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico1. For hundreds of thousands of years, fish, birds (See Figure 1), mammals and even insects have used it for their migrations. Native Americans relied on these migrations for food and used the Mississippi to travel for trade and to move between seasonal homes. In our more recent past, the Mississippi moved people looking for work and freedom, causing a beautiful blending of cultures.

It may surprise some people that fish migrate, but they do. Many fish species require different habitats for when they are young, adults, or breeding. The Mississippi River houses 241 species of fish1 and at least 34 of those are migratory2. We’ll talk more about those fish in the October 19th post, so be sure to check back then.

Figure 2: Eastern Wood Pewee

Figure 2: Eastern Wood Pewee. Photo courtesy of Audubon.

More than 325 bird species use the Mississippi River Flyway for their migrations. These include birds ranging from the majestic Bald Eagle to the American Oystercatcher to the Eastern Wood-Pewee (See Figure 2) and several species of ducks.

There are several great bird watching sites all along the Mississippi River. In Illinois and Missouri, there are at least 43 wonderful places. You can find a list of locations at Make a weekend of it and travel along the Great River Road, stopping at birding sites and local eateries. You can download bird lists and see how many you can find.

Have trouble identifying birds like I do? You can find classes in bird identification online. There are even bird ID apps for your iPhone and Android phones or your iPad, Kindle and Nook. Check them out at,, and

You can take it to another level and participate in bird conservation by joining eBird, a website where people can download lists of species in their area, submit their observations and look at data other people have posted. It is an awesome website.

Figure 3: Artist rendering of Cahokia

Figure 3: Artist rendering of what Cahokia might have looked like. Image courtesy of Legends of America.

The Mississippi River was an integral part of many native people groups in North America. Across several eras, from the Woodland to modern day, the river has been a means of travel and trade3. Many tribes including the Hopewell people in the Middle Woodland era, the Iowa, Ojibwe, Sioux, Kickapoo, Chickasaw, and many others4 made the Mississippi part of their culture. Probably one of the most well-known Mississippi trading sites is Cahokia located just east of St. Louis, MO (See Figure 3). You can visit this site and learn about the incredible culture by checking out

Figure 4: Steamboat

Figure 4: Steamboat, Iron Mountain, moving barrels of molasses. Photo courtesy of The New Southern View

Not only did the great Mississippi move native peoples, but it also moved European settlers and escaped or freed slaves to new hopes and dreams of independence. The steamboat era (early-mid 1800’s) brought with it a whole new era of movement and human migration. Whether it was by raft, canoe, or steamboat (See Figure 4), the Mississippi transported goods, ideas, music, food and people leading to a wonderful melting pot of culture. Today, river traffic consists mostly of recreational and commercial fishing boats and commercial barges (See Figure5).

Figure 5: Barge

Figure 5: Barge heading up the Mississippi with cargo. Photo courtesy of Fine Art America

These barges are only possible by the engineering marvel that is our lock and dam system (See Figure 6). This system of 29 locks and dams allow controllers to change the level of water within them to help move barges along the river. Although these barges make for efficient transport of goods, the locks and dams can also disrupt fish migrations along the Mississippi. It is well known that dams disrupt/prevent salmon migrations out west, but it has become apparent that they do the same for other fish in our rivers.

Figure 6: Barge

Figure 6: Barge locking through the Melvin Price Lock and Dam. Photo courtesy of Visit Alton

Research is currently being done on the Mississippi River to understand the impact our locks and dams are having on our fish and what can be done about it. You can read more and download information at

I hope this has peaked your interest in the Mississippi River and the role it plays in so many lives, human and animal. Come back October 2nd to learn about why and how leaves turn colors and how our trees prepare for the hard winter.

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