Songbirds fly 3 times faster than expected (Video)

Feb 12, 2009
A male wood thrush feeds its young while wearing a miniaturized geolocator backpack. Fourteen wood thrushes wore the devices for the long trip to the tropics and back in groundbreaking research on songbird migration. The research was led by Bridget Stutchbury of York University in Toronto and partly funded by National Geographic. Photo by Elizabeth Gow

A York University researcher has tracked the migration of songbirds by outfitting them with tiny geolocator backpacks - a world first - revealing that scientists have underestimated their flight performance dramatically.

"Never before has anyone been able to track songbirds for their entire migratory trip," said study author Bridget Stutchbury, a professor of biology in York's Faculty of Science & Engineering. "We're excited to achieve this scientific first." Songbirds, the most common type of bird in our skies, are too small for conventional satellite tracking.

Stutchbury and her team mounted miniaturized geolocators on 14 wood thrushes and 20 purple martins, breeding in Pennsylvania during 2007, tracking the birds' fall takeoff, migration to South America, and journey back to North America. In the summer of 2008, they retrieved the geolocators from five wood thrushes and two purple martins and reconstructed individual migration routes and wintering locations.

This video is not supported by your browser at this time.
A wood thrush feeds its young while sporting a miniaturized geolocator device on its back. A team led by Bridget Stutchbury of York University in Toronto overcame technical challenges to mount the devices on wood thrushes and purple martins for their migration between North and South America. (c) National Geographic Society

Data from the geolocators indicated that songbirds can fly in excess of 500 km (311 miles) per day, reports Stutchbury in the Feb. 13 issue of the journal Science. Previous studies estimated their flight performance at roughly 150 km (93 miles) per day.

The study, funded in part by the National Geographic Society, found that songbirds' overall migration rate was two to six times more rapid in spring than in fall. For example, one purple martin took 43 days to reach Brazil during fall migration, but in spring returned to its breeding colony in only 13 days. Rapid long-distance movement occurred in both species, said Stutchbury.

"We were flabbergasted by the birds' spring return times. To have a bird leave Brazil on April 12 and be home by the end of the month was just astounding. We always assumed they left sometime in March," she said.

Researchers also found that prolonged stopovers were common during fall migration. The purple martins, which are members of the swallow family, had a stopover of three to four weeks in the Yucatan before continuing to Brazil. Four wood thrushes spent one to two weeks in the southeastern United States in late October, before crossing the Gulf of Mexico, and two other individuals stopped on the Yucatan Peninsula for two to four weeks before continuing migration.

The geolocators, which are smaller than a dime, detect light, allowing researchers to estimate birds' latitude and longitude by recording sunrise and sunset times. The devices are mounted on birds' backs by looping thin straps around their legs. The weight of the geolocator rests at the base of the bird's spine, so as not to interfere with its balance.

Stutchbury credits researchers with the British Antarctic Survey for miniaturizing the geolocators. "They hadn't really been thinking of [attaching them to] songbirds, but when I saw the technology, I knew we could do this," she said.

The study also uncovered evidence that wood thrushes from a single breeding population did not scatter over their tropical wintering grounds. All five wood thrushes wintered in a narrow band in eastern Honduras or Nicaragua.

"This region is clearly important for the overall conservation of wood thrushes, a species that has declined by 30 percent since 1966," said Stutchbury. "Songbird populations have been declining around the world for 30 or 40 years, so there is a lot of concern about them."

She emphasized the importance of this research not only to protect at-risk species of songbirds, but also to gauge environmental concerns.

"Tracking birds to their wintering areas is also essential for predicting the impact of tropical habitat loss and climate change," she said. "Until now, our hands have been tied in many ways, because we didn't know where the birds were going. They would just disappear and then come back in the spring. It's wonderful to now have a window into their journey."

Source: National Geographic Society

Explore further: Free the seed: OSSI nurtures growing plants without patent barriers

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Android gains in US, basic phones almost extinct

6 hours ago

The Google Android platform grabbed the majority of mobile phones in the US market in early 2014, as consumers all but abandoned non-smartphone handsets, a survey showed Friday.

SpaceX launches supplies to space station (Update)

6 hours ago

The SpaceX company returned to orbit Friday, launching fresh supplies to the International Space Station after more than a month's delay and setting the stage for urgent spacewalking repairs.

Recommended for you

Plants with dormant seeds give rise to more species

Apr 18, 2014

Seeds that sprout as soon as they're planted may be good news for a garden. But wild plants need to be more careful. In the wild, a plant whose seeds sprouted at the first warm spell or rainy day would risk disaster. More ...

Researchers successfully clone adult human stem cells

Apr 18, 2014

(Phys.org) —An international team of researchers, led by Robert Lanza, of Advanced Cell Technology, has announced that they have performed the first successful cloning of adult human skin cells into stem ...

User comments : 0

More news stories

Biologists help solve fungi mysteries

(Phys.org) —A new genetic analysis revealing the previously unknown biodiversity and distribution of thousands of fungi in North America might also reveal a previously underappreciated contributor to climate ...

Researchers successfully clone adult human stem cells

(Phys.org) —An international team of researchers, led by Robert Lanza, of Advanced Cell Technology, has announced that they have performed the first successful cloning of adult human skin cells into stem ...

NASA's space station Robonaut finally getting legs

Robonaut, the first out-of-this-world humanoid, is finally getting its space legs. For three years, Robonaut has had to manage from the waist up. This new pair of legs means the experimental robot—now stuck ...

Ex-Apple chief plans mobile phone for India

Former Apple chief executive John Sculley, whose marketing skills helped bring the personal computer to desktops worldwide, says he plans to launch a mobile phone in India to exploit its still largely untapped ...

Filipino tests negative for Middle East virus

A Filipino nurse who tested positive for the Middle East virus has been found free of infection in a subsequent examination after he returned home, Philippine health officials said Saturday.

Egypt archaeologists find ancient writer's tomb

Egypt's minister of antiquities says a team of Spanish archaeologists has discovered two tombs in the southern part of the country, one of them belonging to a writer and containing a trove of artifacts including reed pens ...

Health care site flagged in Heartbleed review

People with accounts on the enrollment website for President Barack Obama's signature health care law are being told to change their passwords following an administration-wide review of the government's vulnerability to the ...