Bird Migration 101—The Record Holders

(Part two of three) Several weeks ago, we started a series on bird migration which was unavoidably interrupted.

October is a very busy month for the 4,000 species of birds that are regular migrants. That’s why birders love the fall. Brightly colored leaves have nothing on the thrill of spotting birds as they pass through your part of the world.

We’d like to get back to the subject of migration by relating some impressive feats of migratory birds that are almost too amazing to believe, but birds are, indeed, remarkable.

bar headed goose
Bar-Headed Goose

Highest Flying Migratory Bird—Bar-Headed Goose. They regularly reach altitudes of five and a half miles above sea level as the fly over the Himalayas in India.

(You may have heard that the highest-flying bird on record is a Ruppel’s Griffon Vulture that encountered an airplane at 37,000 feet—about 7 miles—in 1975 but that wasn’t thought to be a migratory flight. Unfortunately, that bird’s flight ended when it was sucked into a jet engine.)

arctic tern 1
Arctic Tern

Longest Migration of Any Bird—Arctic Tern. They breed in the Arctic and winter in the Antarctic. The annual round trip covers almost 50,000 miles. With a lifespan of 30 years, they fly about 1.5 million miles just migrating. To put that into perspective, the average distance between the earth and the moon is 238,857 miles; that means, during its lifetime, the Arctic Tern flies more than 3 round trips between the earth and the moon.

Northern Wheatear
Northern Wheatear

Longest Migration for a Songbird—Northern Wheatear. Weighing at less than an ounce, this tiny traveler flies more than 9,000 miles each way between its breeding ground in the Arctic and its winter home in Africa.

Fastest Migrating Bird—Great Snipe. It travels 4,200 miles and reaches a top speed of 60 mph even without the benefit of a tailwind. Just take a moment to appreciate how fast that is next time you’re tooling down the interstate.

Longest Migration Flight Without Stopping—Bar-Tailed Godwit. During its eight-day, 7,000-mile journey, the Bar-Tailed Godwit doesn’t stop for food or rest.

Blackpoll Warbler (Dendroica striata)
Blackpoll Warbler

Most Prepared Migratory Bird—Blackpoll Warbler. Many bird species enter a state called hyperphagia in the weeks leading up to migration; they store fat that they’ll later use on their long flight. We give the trophy to the Blackpoll Warbler as the most impressive because it almost doubles its weight before embarking on its 2,300 mile, 86 hour nonstop flight. To put that distance into perspective, it’s 2,451 miles between New York City and Los Angeles.

Weirdest Migratory Bird—Emu. Found on the Australian mainland, Emus are flightless, yet they migrate . . . by walking. Emus can travel great distances foraging for plants and insects. They have been known to go weeks without eating. When necessary, they can sprint as fast as 30 mph.

Runner-Up—Penguin. Penguins also migrate, but they swim to their destination.

Migrating species of birds face arduous, dangerous journeys. Many migrating birds never return to their starting point. Weather plays a role, but humans and their pets are also a hazard. In the United States alone, about one billion birds die each year from window collisions. Approximately 7 million birds die from striking television and radio towers annually in North America. To that you can add almost 400,000 bird deaths from wind turbines. And a peer-reviewed study by two federal scientists and an environmental consulting firm, found that between 1.4 and 3.7 billion birds are killed by house cats.



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