Migrating birds know no boundaries

Arctic Tern, © Simon Stirrup

Birds are arguably the most mobile creatures on Earth, showing adaptations that allow them to undertake epic journeys, as illustrated by seven species using different migration pathways. 

Some of the spectacular migration routes followed by migratory bird species

Birds are arguably the most mobile creatures on Earth, rivalling even humans. They show morphological, physiological and behavioural adaptations that allow them to fly high, fast and for extended periods during their epic journeys. For its pole to pole journey, Arctic Tern Sterna paradisaea reigns supreme, being the only bird known to migrate between the Arctic and Antarctic, a staggering 30,000–40,000 km round trip. The longest distance recorded electronically is 70,900 km (range 59,500–81,600 km) (Egevang et al. 2010). Following closely second, the Sooty Shearwater Puffinus griseus can clock up an incredible 64,000 km (± 9,779 km) during its annual migration around the Pacific Ocean (Shaffer et al. 2006). Bar-tailed Godwit Limosa lapponica shows remarkable endurance and holds the record for longest non-stop flight of nearly 12,000 km (Holmes 2008, Gill et al. 2008). To sustain flight for so long without feeding requires remarkable physiological adaptations and Bar-tailed Godwits set off with more than half their body weight made up of fat, while incredibly their gut shrinks to make way for the extra fat and muscle (Piersma and Gill 1998).

Other migrant species are not outshone. Bobolink Dolichonyx oryzivorus flies more than 9,600 km, from the prairies of Canada to the pampas of Argentina. Far Eastern Curlew Numenius madagascariensis travels the length of East Asia from its breeding grounds in Siberia to the coasts of Australia, with female birds continuing even further south to wetlands in south Australia. Short-tailed Shearwater Puffinus tenuirostris undertakes an incredible figure-of-eight circuit of the Pacific Ocean, the circumpolar Cape Petrel Daption capense ranges extensively across the Antarctic region, while Amur Falcon Falco amurensis makes a massive loop between East Asia and South Africa. European Bee-eater Merops apiaster winters exclusively in Africa with west European birds moving to west Africa and east European ones heading down the Nile to southern Africa—one individual ringed near Moscow was recorded in Zimbabwe, nearly 8,000 km away. These seven species illustrate some of the major migration pathways flown by the thousands of long-distance migrant bird species (see figure).

Besides their aesthetic value, migratory birds are important in numerous cultures (e.g. as harbingers of season shift), provide a major resource when managed sustainably for food or sport, are environmental indicators, and link developed and developing countries (Salathé 1991). Common concerns for the threats faced by migratory birds, plus the recognition that conserving them is an international duty, underpin collaborative international legislation and conventions. For instance, the Convention on Migratory Species aims to conserve terrestrial, marine and avian migratory species throughout their ranges. By fostering bonds among nations, migratory birds act as valuable ambassadors for our shared natural heritage.

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Egevang, C.,  Stenhouse, I. J., Phillips, R. A., Petersen, A., Fox, J. W., and Silk, J. R. D (2010) Tracking of Arctic terns Sterna paradisaea reveals longest animal migration. PNAS 107: 2078–2081.
Gill Jr, R. E., Tibbitts, T. L., Douglas, D. C., Handel, C. M., Mulcahy, D. M., Gottschalck, J. C., Warnock, N., McCaffery, B. J., Battley, P.F., and Piersma, T. (2009) Extreme endurance flights by landbirds crossing the Pacific Ocean: ecological corridor rather than barrier? Proc. R. Soc. B. 276: 447–457.
Holmes, B. (2008) Flight of the navigators. New Scientist 2666: 36-39.Piersma, T. and Gill, R. T. (1998) Guts don’t fly: small digestive organs in obese Bar-tailed Godwits. Auk 115: 196-203.
Salathé, T. ed. (1991) Conserving migratory birds. Cambridge, UK: International Council for Bird Preservation.
Shaffer, S. A., Tremblay, Y., Weimerskirch, H., Scott, D., Thompson, D. R., Sagar, P. M., Moller, H., Taylor, G. A., Foley,  D. G., Block, B. A., and Costa, D. P. (2006) Migratory shearwaters integrate oceanic resources across the Pacific Ocean in an endless summer. PNAS 103: 12799-12802.

Compiled: 2004    Last updated: 2015   

Recommended Citation:
BirdLife International (2015) Migrating birds know no boundaries. Downloaded from http://www.birdlife.org on 29/11/2023