You won’t find geolocator backpacks in the North Face catalog anytime soon, but if you fly south for the winter you may notice one strapped to the back of a migrating songbird. That’s how an inventive group of researchers have been tracking the speed and location of purple martins and wood thrushes flying from Pennsylvania to South America and back. What they’ve have found is truly astonishing.
The study, funded in part by the National Geographic Society, concluded that songbirds fly a whopping 3 times faster than expected. Data from the geolocators indicated that the birds can fly in excess of 311 miles per day, as reported in the Feb. 13 issue of the journal Science. Previous studies estimated their flight performance at roughly 93 miles per day.
Researchers also found that overall migration rates are two to six times more rapid in spring than they are in autumn. For example, one purple martin took 43 days to reach Brazil during fall migration, but in spring it returned to its breeding colony in only 13 days. Prolonged stopovers during fall migration were blamed for the relatively lackadaisical pace. The purple martins had a stopover of three to four weeks in the Yucatan before continuing to Brazil, while the wood thrushes stopped two to four weeks before continuing migration.
"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."
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.