The Bar-Tailed Godwit: An Amazing Avian Traveler

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Published on December 11th, 2008  |  Discuss This Article  


I’ve been a birder and bird conservationist for years, but every now and then something really incredible comes along. In this case, its the story of the Bar-tailed Godwit that traveled non-stop from Alaska to New Zealand (11,700 km), then from New Zealand to China (10,300 km), and then from China back to Alaska (6,500 km).

Those are incredible feats of endurance, physiological tolerance, and navigation — remember that there’s pretty much nothing but water along any of those routes and this is a species that can’t really land on water.  If you haven’t checked it out, take a look at here for more info, maps, etc.

This story has received a lot of deserving good press, and the equipment used in the study (satellite transmitters implanted in the body cavity) is pretty high-tech.  However, to me, one of the more interesting things about the story is that the lead researchers actually deduced from other evidence several years ago that such long non-stop flights must be possible

They used a combination of sight records (or, rather, the absence of them), knowledge of avian physiology, the amount of weight gained by godwits before they migrate (they really pack it on!), and models of how much fat is burned per kilometer flown to figure this out.

Now they’ve proven it with real data. But it goes to show you that good, old-fashioned natural history and common sense intuition go a long way when it comes to studying birds and their movements.

(Video: Juvenile Bar-tailed Godwit at Apaj-fishponds, Hungary, Kiskunsagi National Park.)

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