This Bird's Record Flight 'Stretches the Imagination'

Bar-tailed godwit flew 8,435 miles nonstop from Alaska to Australia in 11 days, one hour
By Jenn Gidman,  Newser Staff
Posted Oct 27, 2022 1:06 PM CDT
This Bird's Record Flight 'Stretches the Imagination'
Stock photo of a bar-tailed godwit.   (Getty Images/Denja1)

You can imagine how grueling a drive from New York City to Alaska must be. Now picture arriving at your destination in the Last Frontier, then immediately turning around and heading right back to the Big Apple—all without a second driver or stops for food, drink, or bathroom breaks. That's basically the equivalent of what a young bird just pulled off, flying more than 8,400 miles in a marathon migration that lasted 11 days and one hour and earned it a world distance record. The Guardian reports that the tagged juvenile bar-tailed godwit (aka No. 234684) took flight from Alaska's Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta on Oct. 13, with 5G satellite data keeping tabs on its constant movement. According to tracking by the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology and other groups, the 5-month-old bird coasted nonstop for 8,435 miles before setting down on terra firma on Oct. 25 in Ansons Bay, Tasmania.

That smashed an 8,100-mile record set just last year by an adult godwit. Ecologist and bird expert Eric Woehler tells ABC Australia that the godwit's nonstop journey is a necessity over the ocean, as it doesn't have the webbing on its feet needed to take off again if it lands in the water for a break. He notes that this particular record-setting bird likely lost "half or more of its body weight" on its long haul to Tasmania. The New York Times reports that the migration feat of the species in general—which is said to be the longest nonstop migration of a land bird on the planet, often in extreme weather—is a subject of fascination for scientists. That's especially so because the species has a more than 90% survival rate during this journey that Western University animal physiologist Christopher Guglielmo says is less like a marathon and "more like a trip to the moon."

"The more I learn, the more amazing I find them," University of Groningen ecologist Theunis Piersma says. "They are a total evolutionary success." The godwit's migration abilities, which involve an exhausting-sounding continuous flapping (as opposed to the "dynamic soaring" that other birds use to get around), have also caused new questions to bubble up about bird behavior and physiology in general, spurring what Piersma calls "the new ornithology." As for what such a trip might have felt like for the young bird that just broke the world record, US Geological Survey biologist Robert E. Gill Jr. offers context that humans can better grasp. "I tell people try exercising for nine straight days—not stopping, not eating, not drinking—to convey what's going on here," he says. "It stretches the imagination." Much more here. (More birds stories.)

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