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Earth Science

Small Bird Astounds Scientists With 11,200km Flight 99

Zeb writes "Scientists are marveling over a small female bar-tailed godwit somewhere in New Zealand who has a world record for non-stop flying — an epic 11,200 kilometers. A major international study into the birds has been published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B and it offers an explanation as to why the godwits fly so far from Alaska to New Zealand in a single bound. The birds flew non-stop for up to and covered more than 11,200km. The flight path shows the birds did not feed en route and would be unlikely to sleep." The linked Wikipedia entry claims an even longer trip record, of 11,570 kilometers.
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Small Bird Astounds Scientists With 11,200km Flight

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  • by Laebshade ( 643478 ) <> on Saturday October 25, 2008 @02:26PM (#25510767)

    African or european?

  • How do they store enough energy?
    br>Anyone qualified to offer guesses for the amount of energy required?
    • Re:Efficiency (Score:4, Interesting)

      by maxume ( 22995 ) on Saturday October 25, 2008 @02:35PM (#25510821)

      The upper limit would be their weight in calories of fat (unless you count energy that they capture from the wind or whatever as 'required'). Apparently, a large female weighs about 1.4 pounds, which is about 4,900 Calories (kcals...).

      Figure in that they are made out of stuff that they won't use up and it seems likely that it is some fraction of that.

      • Re:Efficiency (Score:5, Informative)

        by reverseengineer ( 580922 ) on Saturday October 25, 2008 @03:39PM (#25511295)
        Long-distance migratory birds can stock up for flights by putting on fat roughly up to their lean weight, so a 630g godwit may only weigh about 315g at the end of its migration. Roughly, you're looking at about 2500kcals burned during the eight day flight, which is astonishing for an animal with about 1% of the weight of a human. This is about 0.0036kcal/second, or approximately 15 watts. Elite human athletes can produce about 6 watts per kg of body mass, while this bird can sustain 30 watts/kg for over a week.
        • Hardly surprising; an elite human is barely comparable to the most out-of-shape bird..

          • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

            by retchdog ( 1319261 )

            No kidding. See this reference about engineering human-powered flight: []

            "We have built our own test rig that measures power output of a pilot over a minute duration. We have plotted the results of numerous potential pilots against their weight. A successful candidate is one that falls above a power requirement curve (power vs. weight). ... We have had people vomit after these one-minute tests. In similar tests in the United States they have had one person have a mild he

        • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

          by maxume ( 22995 )

          I imagine they spend a lot of that energy staying warm. Overheating is apparently a key issue for human athletes (so dumping a bunch of heat to the environment lets the birds work harder):


          Still pretty impressive.

    • by JustOK ( 667959 )

      teeny little batteries?

    • Some birds can do that - it's like fly through McDonalds for them.

  • by Dutch Gun ( 899105 ) on Saturday October 25, 2008 @02:31PM (#25510805)

    It's because the male birds refused to stop and ask directions, of course. Then, when they arrived at their destinations thousands of kilometers off course, they simply claimed it was where they *wanted* to go in the first place. Now, they have to fly back there every year, or admit they were wrong in the first place. Much easier to fly 11,200 kilometers twice a year.

  • Wait... (Score:3, Interesting)

    by The Ultimate Fartkno ( 756456 ) on Saturday October 25, 2008 @02:37PM (#25510835)

    They were "unlikely to sleep?"

    So Joe Scientist thinks there's a remote possibility that the birds napped en route during a "nonstop, over-water route?" WTF? Mind you, I'd pay good money to see it happen, but I really can't figure out how that would work.

    • It's within the realm of possibility that they do sleep but some automatic functioning of wing-beating still occurs. Kind of like sleep-walking, except sleep-flying.

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by Anonymous Coward

        Some birds can indeed sleep while flying, most famously swifts and albatrosses. Some birds also have the capacity to go half-asleep: they close one eye and let that half of the brain rest (Google "unilateral eye closure birds sleep").

      • by mikael ( 484 )

        There would always be the hazard that they would end up flying in circles or crash into the ground. If birds really do have 'magnetic vision' then that would prevent the first problem. If they can accurately determine changes in velocity, then that would avoid the second problem.
        But then, how would they avoid flying into each other? Someone has to keep their eyes open.

      • by caluml ( 551744 )
        Sort of like us carrying on breathing or our heart beating while we sleep. In fact, perhaps these birds hook their wing muscles up to their hearts, and dream of lovey things.
        I think I've hit on it. Someone, give me a grant. A mill or two (GBP preferred but EUR or even USD accepted)
    • Re:Wait... (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Aranykai ( 1053846 ) < minus caffeine> on Saturday October 25, 2008 @02:45PM (#25510909)

      In the animal kingdom, its quite common for creatures to go without what we would consider restful sleep. Cows sleep standing, sharks sleep while swimming, why couldn't these birds manage some form of rest while flying?

      • by n3tcat ( 664243 )
        I tried telling the cop that when he asked me why I had turned my car off and was drafting off an 18-wheeler. I don't think he saw the correlation.
      • Re:Wait... (Score:4, Interesting)

        by TubeSteak ( 669689 ) on Saturday October 25, 2008 @03:35PM (#25511273) Journal

        In the animal kingdom, its quite common for creatures to go without what we would consider restful sleep. Cows sleep standing, sharks sleep while swimming, why couldn't these birds manage some form of rest while flying?

        That's because they sleep differently.
        Sharks' swim center is in their spinal cord, meaning they can sleep while swimming. Birds (as it seems to be understood) can put half their brain to sleep while flying, but are unable to enter REM sleep since that entails a loss of muscle tone. Birds can sleep standing up because their tendons lock their claws into position, even while asleep. Cows & horses nap while standing, but do not enter full REM sleep unless lying down, since they need muscle tone to stand.

        Cows, horses and birds all need REM sleep at some point or they show signs of sleep deprivation.

        All this is AFAIK and YMMV

        • by jamesh ( 87723 )

          Birds can sleep standing up because their tendons lock their claws into position, even while asleep.

          That's nothing!!! The Norwegian Blue Parrot [] can remain standing whilst asleep, pining for the fjords, or even dead. A truly remarkable bird. Beautiful plumage.

      • Fascinating. I never thought about it that way. And now I just can't get stop thinking about never-sleeping, never-stopping, Michael Myers-esque sharks that never stop coming towards you.

        You can just rock me to sleep tonight, mister!

      • by Trogre ( 513942 )

        The dolphin is the one that fascinates me. While they can enter something similar to regular sleep as we understand it, they usually shut down one brain hemisphere at a time, keeping one eye open watching for predators.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by daveb ( 4522 )
      >So Joe Scientist thinks there's a remote possibility that the birds napped en route during a "nonstop, over-water route?" WTF?

      I guess it depends on how you define sleep. We all can do some stuff in our sleep (breathing for e.g.). I'm no biologist but I *guess* an animal could sleep and have wings set to the same automatic response as breathing, waking up when it got tricky (turbulance etc).

      But this does look interesting in terms of data delivery over avian carriers []. Tiny birds ... I guess we'd be ta

    • Re:Wait... (Score:4, Informative)

      by Detritus ( 11846 ) on Saturday October 25, 2008 @03:35PM (#25511267) Homepage
      I've seen birds (sooty terns) that can spend years in the air. I've been told that they can let one part of their brain sleep while they use the other part to fly. They only need to land when they build a nest and lay eggs. You can go outside at night and see them soaring in the air currents.
    • I remember hearing that it was the (Japanese was what I heard but maybe Koreans or PLA?) army trained its soldiers to "put their minds to sleep" while doing routine drills. From what I recall only parts of the mind need to "go to sleep", the only parts remaining awake are the ones responsible for basic movement and watching out for stuff, I guess just enough to make him go into something like REM without the REM...

      Of course I only have one source and I doubt the Slashdot crowd would accept it. But it does h

    • by tsa ( 15680 )

      These birds [] (gierzwaluw in Dutch; I don't know the English name but it's a kind of swallow) sleep every night, but they fly almost for a year each year. They only land to lay eggs and raise their young. They feed and even mate in the air. I've been told that in the evening they fly to extreme heights and then sleep for a few minutes, falling down. They wake up before there is even a remote chance they will hit the ground, and fly up again.

  • Swifts (Score:5, Informative)

    by n0rr1s ( 768407 ) on Saturday October 25, 2008 @02:42PM (#25510869)

    The record is actually for flying the furthest in eight days across the Pacific, not the furthest non-stop flight ever as implied by the headline. Which is not surprising - the common swift, for example, can spend years in the air without landing. []

    Nonetheless, these birds are still impressive.

  • by religious freak ( 1005821 ) on Saturday October 25, 2008 @03:07PM (#25511069)
    Admit it... you had to look it up (unless you're in physics or live outside the USA)
    • I think to most people 7000 miles says as little as 11000 km. THey are so big that you stop imagening how big it is.

    • Re: (Score:1, Flamebait)

      by dafrazzman ( 1246706 )

      Some people actually find the metric system more convenient and intuitive. The fact that you feel the need to convert to and declare the mileage shows that you probably neither work in physics nor live outside the US, so I don't see why you feel the need to look down on others who don't have that useless conversion memorized.

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by zippthorne ( 748122 )

        Indeed. There are two natural, common units when talking about distances of that scale. Kilometers (~10,000 of them takes you from pole to equator) and Nautical Miles (1 minute of arc each)

    • Check out which countries don't use Metric, you'll find the US keeps good company.
  • I must say (Score:3, Funny)

    by rarel ( 697734 ) on Saturday October 25, 2008 @03:19PM (#25511157) Homepage
    It's the first time I see the Godwit law apply right from the summary.

    Oh wait...
  • Quite humbling, I think. The other day I was thinking about how I don't have those dreams about flying anymore. I guess it's part of coming of age? In any case, sometimes I wish I was able to fly like a bird - and imagine being able to do so for thousands of kilometers (though the godwit does land, from time to time, I think).

    And the other thing that came to my mind: the world is full of wonderful creatures that would be a shame if disappeared because of the changes in the environment - mostly destructive -

  • "The birds flew non-stop for up to and..."

    Up to what? I assume this is supposed to be a time. Also, these birds are awesome.

  • Scientists. Always ignoring the important questions.

  • Are they sure that the bird made the 11.2km flight-- and not a 0.1 km flight to the nearest airport, and into the intake port of a plan making a 11.2km flight?

"The following is not for the weak of heart or Fundamentalists." -- Dave Barry