Cornell Lab of Ornithology

english songbird

Ithaca, N.Y.— In one of the greatest feats of endurance in the biological world, millions of tiny songbirds—many weighing less than an ounce—migrate thousands of miles to Central and South America each year. Now scientists are finding out how these featherweights do it: using elliptical routes that take advantage of prevailing wind patterns to save calories.

By shifting routes, birds are taking advantage of stronger tailwinds in spring and less severe headwinds in fall, a study has found. Tailwinds represent a huge advantage for birds heading back to their breeding grounds, while finding weaker headwinds in fall allows southbound birds to make the best of a bad situation.

The analysis also revealed that many more land birds than previously realized follow different routes in spring and fall—particularly in the East, where many species cross the Gulf of Mexico in a single overnight flight.
Many species in the Eastern and Central groups take southbound routes far to the east of their northbound routes, resulting in a clockwise migration loop that puts some of them out over the Atlantic Ocean on their way to their wintering grounds.

The findings may help refine ideas about how and where to plan for conservation along migratory pathways.

“All these species migrate at night, at high altitudes, where we can’t see them,” said Frank La Sorte, a Cornell Lab of Ornithology research associate. “But when the sun comes up in the morning they have to find somewhere to land . . . . “

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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. The world of birds is so beautiful, so intriguing, they are so delicate and strong at the same time. Love to see them around.

    • I know–There is something odd about the frail fluffy little dinosaurs in the sky.

  2. […] Cornell Lab of Ornithology […]

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