Tiny songbird makes remarkable migration

The Northern Wheatear weighs no more than 10 US pennies, yet it the first songbird proven to migrate from the New World to the Old World.

The small bird, about six inches in length, flies from the Arctic region of the Western Hemisphere all the way to sub-Saharan Africa and back, according to a new study published in Biology Letters.

The study proves that the Northern Wheatear regularly travels some 18,000 miles roundtrip, venturing over ocean and desert.

“Scaled for body size, this is one of the longest round-trip migratory journeys by any bird in the world,” according to The Royal Society.

“They are incredible migratory journeys, particularly for a bird this size,” said Professor Ryan Norris of the University of Guelph. “Think of something smaller than a robin but a little larger than a finch raising young in the Arctic tundra and then a few months later foraging for food in Africa for the winter.”

Until recently, details about songbird migration remained unknown because geo-locators were too big or heavy to attach to such small birds. New smaller devices now allow scientists to track flights over several months and over long distances, according to The Royal Society.

The journey lasts between one to three months, depending on breeding location and season, according to Biology Letters.

The study found that individual wheatears spend the winter in northern parts of sub-Saharan Africa.

Alaskan birds travel about 9,000 miles each way, over Siberia and across the Arabian Desert to reach Africa.

Northern wheatears from the eastern Canadian Arctic cross more than 2,000 miles of the North Atlantic, land in the United Kingdom, travel southward across Europe, and cross the Mediterranean Sea and the Sahara Desert, according to The Royal Society.

“This is the only known terrestrial bird that physically links the two radically different ecosystems of the Old World and the Arctic regions of the New World,” Norris said.

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