February 17, 2009 | David F. Coppedge

Songbirds Sing on a Fast Wing

Purple martins and wood thrushes are common songbirds of the eastern United States.  Until recently, it has not been possible to follow their movements accurately.  Now, a team of biologists in Toronto, Erie and Cambridge was able to track them with tiny geolocators.  They found that the little birds fly farther and faster than previously known.
    Reporting in Science,1 the ornithologists found that most of the purple martins made it from Pennsylvania to the Yucatan (2500 km) in 5 days.  That’s 500 km, (over 300 miles), per day.  Then the birds stopped over there for 3 to 4 weeks before moving south to the Amazon basin.  Some of the wood thrushes that migrated from Pennsylvania spent a 2-4 week stopover in the southeastern United States before crossing the Gulf of Mexico.  A couple of the monitored thrushes stopped also in the Yucatan before reaching wintering grounds in Honduras or Nicaragua.
    As if that were not amazing enough, the return flights were 2 to 6 times faster.  One female martin made the 7500 km trip from the Amazon Basin to Pennsylvania in 13 days – averaging 577 km (360 mi) per day.  That includes 4 stopover days.  The wood thrushes took 13 to 15 days to get home.  One of them, oddly, took the overland route instead of crossing the Gulf of Mexico, requiring 29 days to complete the 4600 km route.
    How do these new studies enhance our understanding of bird flight capabilities?  “Previous studies appear to greatly underestimate the true flight performance of migrating songbirds because spring migration speed has typically been estimated at under 150 km/day.”  National Geographic News reported on the story with pictures and a video.  The lead author commented on the purple martin front-runner, “Maybe this is some kind of super-bird, but still I was really impressed that any bird can do this.  These birds are traveling really fast and breaking all the rules.”
    Science Daily also reported on the research.  The geolocators, it said, are smaller than a dime and mounted on the birds’ backs with thin straps around the legs, hopefully not interfering with flight.  One can only wonder if the record-setting female martin might have bested her own time without the backpack.


1.  Stutchbury, Tarof, Done, Gow, Kramer, Tautin, Fox, and Afanasyev, “Tracking Long-Distance Songbird Migration by Using Geolocators,” Science, 13 February 2009: Vol. 323. no. 5916, p. 896, DOI: 10.1126/science.1166664.

This bird didn’t break any rules.  God didn’t put speed limit signs on the route.  He equipped these amazing creatures with awe-inspiring capabilities and let them loose to fly like they were designed to do at their own pace.  We can watch the race like sports fans.
    Here is another story that owed nothing to Darwin.  Neither the original paper or the popular write-ups even mentioned him.  Darwinists keep saying that nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.  This science project did just fine in natural ambience without the black lights (see 02/10/2009 commentary, last line).

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Categories: Amazing Facts, Birds

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