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American Association for the Advancement of Science

Tracking songbird migration

For the first time, researchers have tracked the seasonal migration of songbirds from Pennsylvania all the way to South America and back. This study reveals that the small birds can fly much farther and much faster than anyone had thought possible. Now, researchers can see exactly which migration routes the birds take each spring and fall as well.

This new data could be used to help protect songbird populations, which have been declining around the world for decades now. The information could also help to monitor environmental concerns like habitat loss and climate change, which the songbirds are sensitive to.

Bridget Stutchbury and colleagues attached tiny tracking devices to 14 wood thrushes and 20 purple martins, both types of songbirds, at their breeding grounds in Pennsylvania. The tracking devices detected light so the researchers could determine the birds' latitude and longitude by recording sunrise and sunset times.

The next year, they were able to get the tracking devices back from five of the thrushes and two of the purple martins. Using the information from those tracking devices, the researchers were able to reconstruct the songbirds' entire migratory flights.

They found that the songbirds ended up in countries like Brazil, Honduras, and Nicaragua to avoid the Pennsylvania winters. The data reveals that the birds can fly more than 311 miles a day, which is much more than researchers had estimated before. The researchers also discovered that the birds traveled two to six times faster during their spring migration than they did in the fall season.

Hopefully, these ground-breaking results will help conservationists to save these dwindling species of songbirds (and possibly our own environment as well).