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Nature & Environment

Swifts can keep flying for months at a time

By T.K. Randall
October 9, 2013 · Comment icon 14 comments



Alpine Swifts can stay aloft for months at a time. Image Credit: CC BY-SA 2.0 Birdwatching Barcelona
Researchers have discovered that some birds can maintain continuous flight for over six months.
A team of scientists at the Swiss Ornithological Institute conducted an experiment to learn more about the migratory behavior of the alpine swift, a small bird that is known to spend the summer breeding in Europe before flying thousands of miles to Africa for the winter.

To obtain this data the team attached tiny electronic tags to six birds which recorded information about what the bird was doing every four minutes. A year later the researchers retrieved the tags from the birds and then analyzed the data in a computer to build up an overall picture.
"We wanted to learn about energy demands during migration," said research team member Felix Lietchi. "We expected to see how often they fly, how often they stop, that sort of thing." Upon analyzing the results however the researchers found something highly unexpected.

"During their non-breeding period in Africa, they were always in the air," said Lietchi. "They stayed in the air for all time they spent south of the Sahara, day and night. Sometimes they just glide for a few minutes, so there’s no movement, but the pitch of the body indicates that they’re still gliding in the air."

It had long been suspected that these birds could fly for long periods, but to stay in the air for six months at a time was a feat far in excess of what anyone had been anticipating.

Source: Smithsonian | Comments (14)


Recent comments on this story
Comment icon #5 Posted by aearluin 9 years ago
Ah ok! Very interesting that heraldic stuff. I had no idea that swift/swallow were used for such purposes, I thought it was always lions, boars, eagles and other such "imposing" beasts!
Comment icon #6 Posted by aearluin 9 years ago
Learn a bit more about the alpine swift here: http://planetbirds.blogspot.pt/2010/12/alpine-swift.html
Comment icon #7 Posted by Calibeliever 9 years ago
"Look, It's not a question of where he grips it! It's a simple question of weight ratios! A five ounce bird could not carry a one pound coconut"
Comment icon #8 Posted by OverSword 9 years ago
That's amazing. This wouldn't have surprised me if it had been a bird with a much larger relative wing span.
Comment icon #9 Posted by aearluin 9 years ago
Actually, birds with larger wing surface ratios are usually speciallized in soaring flight, such as large raptors and vultures. They can only sustain flight with the help of ascending thermal air currents. The birds which sustain flight for longer periods are usually long and relatively narrow winged, such as swifs or albatrosses.
Comment icon #10 Posted by highdesert50 9 years ago
Interesting to note that sleep patterns of birds are different than mammals. But, still hard to imagine how catching snippets of sleep allow the bird to sustain itself over such extended periods of time aloft.
Comment icon #11 Posted by ancient astronaut 9 years ago
And Meth Heads can stay awake for weeks on end.
Comment icon #12 Posted by pallidin 9 years ago
I'm a little skeptical given the incremental 4-minute lapse of data recording. Most birds I know of can swoop down to the ground in far less than 30-seconds, do their business in less than 2-minutes and fly back up to cruising altitude in less than 30-seconds. In any event, I heard of a study done with some marine species(I think some type of shark) and it was found that they sleep while still moving, by shutting-down half their brain to rest, then switching to shut down the other half to continue to rest. Not sure how long they said they do this, but it was suggested that they can not be in "... [More]
Comment icon #13 Posted by Sundew 9 years ago
I read many years ago that these birds "sleep" on the wing, that is they partial shut down but are able to maintain flight. Must be a bit like sleepwalking. It does make one wonder how many are killed at night by skyscrapers and/or wind-farm blades if they are not fully aware.
Comment icon #14 Posted by Alex01 9 years ago
I'm a little skeptical given the incremental 4-minute lapse of data recording. Most birds I know of can swoop down to the ground in far less than 30-seconds, do their business in less than 2-minutes and fly back up to cruising altitude in less than 30-seconds. In any event, I heard of a study done with some marine species(I think some type of shark) and it was found that they sleep while still moving, by shutting-down half their brain to rest, then switching to shut down the other half to continue to rest. Not sure how long they said they do this, but it was suggested that they can not be in "... [More]


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