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Birds Fly More Than 7,000 Miles Nonstop, Study Shows

A male bar-tailed godwit with a solar transmitter attached to his leg.
A male bar-tailed godwit with a solar transmitter attached to his leg. (By Kamenobu Ooshiro -- Okinawa Wild Bird Society)
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By David Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The bar-tailed godwit, a plump shorebird with a recurved bill, has blown the record for nonstop, muscle-powered flight right out of the sky.

A study being published today reports that godwits can fly as many as 7,242 miles without stopping in their annual fall migration from Alaska to New Zealand. The previous record, set by eastern curlews, was a 4,000-mile trip from eastern Australia to China.

The birds flew for five to nine days without rest, a few landing on South Pacific islands before resuming their trips, which were monitored by satellite in 2006 and 2007.

As a feat of sustained exercise unrelieved by sleeping, eating or drinking, the godwit's migration appears to be without precedent in the annals of vertebrate physiology.

"The human species doesn't work at these levels. So you just have to sit back in awe of it all," said Robert E. Gill Jr., a biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, who headed the study.

The birds were expending energy at eight-to-10 times the rate they do at rest. The previous record for a boost in energy output is seven times the "basal metabolic rate." Peak output in human beings, achieved by Tour de France bicyclists, is a sixfold increase.

"What this suggests to me is that we haven't yet mined the depths, we really don't know what the extremes are," said Kimberly A. Hammond, a physiological ecologist at the University of California at Riverside not involved in the research.

As astounding as the feat is the fact that it represents a highly evolved solution to a problem, not a fluke or one-time occurrence.

The nonstop, over-water route is free of predators and substantially shorter than a hopscotching route down the eastern coast of Asia, which is the alternative. Landing and eating -- literally, refueling -- would expose the birds to disease and parasites when they are probably somewhat immune-suppressed. Refueling also would add weeks to the trip and itself take energy.

All in all, flying nonstop across most of the north-south span of the Pacific Ocean is the safest thing to do.

The death rate during the migration is unknown but presumably low, as the population of bar-tailed godwits, estimated at 100,000, has been stable and long-lasting.

"This system would not have perpetuated itself if mortality were a big problem," said Gill, whose study is being published today in Proceedings B, a journal of The Royal Society, in England.


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