Songbirds fly 3 times faster than expected

February 12, 2009

TORONTO, Feb. 12, 2009 - 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.

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."
-end-
The study, "Tracking long-distance songbird migration using geolocators," was co-authored by Tyler Done, Elizabeth Gow and Patrick Kramer (York University graduate students), John Tautin (Purple Martin Conservation Association), and James Fox and Vsevolod Afanasyev (British Antarctic Survey).

Media contact:

Melissa Hughes, Media Relations, York University: 416 736 2100 x22097, mehughes@yorku.ca .

Barbara Moffet, National Geographic, 202 857 7756, bmoffet@ngs.org .

For photographs, contact Kate Baylor, (202) 862-5299, kbaylor@ngs.org . For video, contact Heather Cabral, (202) 457-8465, hcabral@ngs.org .

News release, images, video and the paper are available to journalist registrants via the Science Press Package (SciPak) Web site at www.eurekalert.org/jrnls/sci/.

(To register, please visit www.eurekalert.org and email scipak@aaas.org or call (202) 326-6440 to expedite your registration.)

York University is the leading interdisciplinary research and teaching university in Canada. York offers a modern, academic experience at the undergraduate and graduate level in Toronto, Canada's most international city. The third largest university in the country, York is host to a dynamic academic community of 50,000 students and 7,000 faculty and staff, as well as more than 200,000 alumni worldwide. York's 11 faculties and 26 research centres conduct ambitious, groundbreaking research that is interdisciplinary, cutting across traditional academic boundaries. This distinctive and collaborative approach is preparing students for the future and bringing fresh insights and solutions to real-world challenges. York University is an autonomous, not-for-profit corporation.

National Geographic Society

Related Songbirds Articles from Brightsurf:

Songbirds reduce reproduction to help survive drought
New research from the University of Montana suggests tropical songbirds in both the Old and New Worlds reduce reproduction during severe droughts, and this - somewhat surprisingly -- may actually increase their survival rates.

Male songbirds can't survive on good looks alone, says a new study
Brightly colored male songbirds not only have to attract the female's eye, but also make sure their sperm can last the distance, according to new research.

Understanding why songbirds choose their homes
New research by University of Alberta biologists uses a new approach to modelling the populations of six species of songbirds in Canada's boreal forest -- and the results show that standard modeling methods may not be accurately capturing species distribution patterns.

Daddy daycare: Why some songbirds care for the wrong kids
Interspecific feeding -- when an adult of one species feeds the young of another -- is rare among songbirds, and scientists could only speculate on why it occurs, but now, Penn State researchers have new insight into this behavior.

Neonicotinoid insecticides cause rapid weight loss and travel delays in migrating songbirds
Songbirds exposed to imidacloprid, a widely used neonicotinoid insecticide, exhibit anorexic behavior, reduced body weight and delays in their migratory itinerary, according to a new study.

International scientists shed new light on demise of two extinct New Zealand songbirds
They may not have been seen for the past 50 and 110 years, but an international study into their extinction has provided answers to how the world lost New Zealand's South Island kokako and huia.

Scent brings all the songbirds to the yard
Lehigh University scientists found that not only can chickadees smell, but the males and females prefer the smell of their own species over the smell of the opposite species.

Scientists identify brain region that enables young songbirds to change their tune
In a scientific first, Columbia scientists have demonstrated how the brains of young songbirds become tuned to the songs they learn while growing up.

The case of the poisoned songbirds
Researchers from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife's Wildlife Investigations Laboratory present their results from a toxicological investigation into a mortality event involving songbirds in a new publication in Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry.

Baby tiger sharks eat songbirds
Tiger sharks have a reputation for being the 'garbage cans of the sea' -- they'll eat just about anything, from dolphins and sea turtles to rubber tires.

Read More: Songbirds News and Songbirds Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.