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Capabilities of Migrating Birds Deserve Awards and Recognition

Photo: Wandering albatross, via Wikimedia Commons.

Kids used to collect baseball cards passionately, trading them among their friends in hopes of getting the most famous players in their collections. They admired the photos of their heroes in action on the front side and memorized the player’s stats (batting average, RBIs, home runs) printed on the back. Might I suggest a product for some design-friendly entrepreneur? Animal Cards! Pack attractive cards in gum candies and let the youngsters chew on some intelligent design facts while having fun collecting and trading. 

A good starter set would feature migrating birds. These are true champions of long-distance flight, navigation, and endurance that leave many sports heroes far behind. Here are some flyers worthy of recognition on Bird Cards.

Common Whitethroat

The common whitethroat (Curruca communis) is a small dusky-colored warbler that summers in Europe and winters in Africa, Arabia, or Pakistan. Its low weight (14 grams), plain appearance, and scratchy voice belie its migratory prowess. 

Two ornithologists from the University of St. Andrews, with a colleague in Nigeria, outfitted 40 of the birds with geologgers weighing only half a gram and recorded their flight paths. These lightweight contenders were measured traveling 5,000 km in just 52 days, including 2,000 km nonstop across inhospitable barriers like the Sahara Desert and the Mediterranean Sea. How’s that for a home run? The scientists published the stats in PLOS ONE:

Departures from breeding grounds took place between July and August in a south-westerly direction. During spring migration individuals travelled longer distances at faster rates making its overall duration shorter than autumn migration. We suggest that, while Whitethroats can cross the Sahara Desert and Mediterranean Sea in a single flight, they are likely to refuel before and after crossing. [Emphasis added.]

The small champions sometimes stop at the bases, but occasionally make home runs. “If under severe time constraints, however, individuals can successfully undergo a flight without making stopovers.”

Bay-Breasted Warbler

Another warbler takes the lead over its white-throated cousin. This little featherweight flyer with its handsome uniform also undertakes “extraordinary journeys” twice per year, flying over 6,400 km between Canada and South America. Christina Larson wrote for about the feats of this species, Setophaga castanea.

A bay-breasted warbler weighs about the same as four pennies, but twice a year makes an extraordinary journey. The tiny songbird flies nearly 4,000 miles (6,437 kilometers) between Canada’s spruce forests and its wintering grounds in northern South America.

Red-Throated Loon

Moving up into the welterweight category, look at another champion. Loons have a distinctive call of the wild that, like a howling wolf, makes an explorer feel like Jack London in the far north. Red-throated loons are excellent fishers in small lakes. When not fishing, they take long trips. 

Ornithologists at the University of Maine outfitted some red-throated loons (Gavia stellata) with satellite transmitters and monitored their routes. News from the University of Maine tells what they found: epic journeys through the cold lands of Greenland, Canada, and the Arctic. Groups of birds spread out, covering a vast area.

Despite sampling just 5% of the North American Atlantic coast non-breeding range, an area equivalent to just 0.001% of the presumed Atlantic flyway breeding range, the birds studied spread out across 65% of that breeding range, suggesting that the mid-Atlantic region constitutes the core of the non-breeding range for red-throated loons that winter.

Wandering Albatross

Moving up to the heavyweight class, the wandering albatross (pictured at the top) is a fascinating bird that can travel thousands of miles without flapping its wings. With its 11-foot wingspan (the longest of any living bird), this iconic soaring champion of the southern oceans attracted the attention of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. Researchers show maps of its wanderings, and describe how it tilts and swoops in clever ways to take advantage of the wind’s energy.

Wandering albatrosses lack sufficient musculature to sustain continuous flapping flight for long periods of time; however they have a shoulder lock that mechanically holds their wings outstretched so that little energy is expended while soaring, according to the paper.

The wandering albatross is so good at efficient use of wind energy, NASA has taken notice. The BBC News reported that an albatross-inspired glider has been designed for future flights on Mars. Unlike rovers or the highly successful Mars demonstration helicopter, a flyer designed like an albatross could fly for free on the Martian wind, swoop up the slopes of volcanoes, and stay aloft for long periods of time. A demonstration Mars sailplane has been designed at the University of Arizona. With looks similar in proportions to the albatross, it can pack a small camera, and temperature and gas sensors to reconnoiter much farther than its battery-powered explorers can.

While these other forms of transport have been partly limited by power needs, the glider would use energy available in the atmosphere itself, explained Adrien Bouskela, an aerospace engineering doctoral student at the University of Arizona.

“It’s kind of a leap forward in those methods of extending missions,” he said.

Bird Migration Studies Flying High

In a special issue on birds, Current Biology included a review paper titled, “New frontiers in bird migration research.” The open-access article discusses the current state of knowledge and future outlooks in this exciting field.

Bird migrations are impressive behavioral phenomena, representing complex spatiotemporal strategies to balance costs of living while maximizing fitness. The field of bird migration research has made great strides over the past decades, yet fundamental gaps remain. Technologies have sparked a transformation in the study of bird migration research by revealing remarkable insights into the underlying behavioral, cognitive, physiological and evolutionary mechanisms of these diverse journeys.

Eric Cassell, author of Animal Algorithms with its examples of migrating champions and the requirements that permit them, might suggest changing “evolutionary mechanisms” to “engineered mechanisms.” But the paper’s mention of “specific requirements for flight” should attract readers’ attention, as well as the phrase “onboard algorithms” — which, sadly, was only used in reference to human designs for geologgers. Someday scientists will get it. Nothing gets off the ground in controlled flight without foresight and a plan to meet the requirements. Those necessities also apply to all the engineering marvels in our own bodies, as emphasized by Steve Laufmann and Howard Glicksman in their new book, Your Designed Body.

Cool Tools

Also at, Christina Larson announced a valuable new resource for a Bird Card project:

The Bird Migration Explorer mapping tool, available free to the public, is an ongoing collaboration between 11 groups that collect and analyze data on bird movements, including the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, the U.S. Geological Survey, Georgetown University, Colorado State University, and the National Audubon Society.

For the first time, the site will bring together online data from hundreds of scientific studies that use GPS tags to track bird movements, as well as more than 100 years of bird-banding data collected by USGS, community science observations entered into Cornell’s eBird platform, genomic analysis of feathers to pinpoint bird origins, and other data.

Animal Card entrepreneurs will want to use this online tool to design their collection on birds.