What’s faster than a speeding Olympic skier?

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Purple Martins travel thousands of kilometres a year in their migrations!

By Kevin Fraser

The feats of endurance athletes amaze us. Years of diligent training and sacrifice sometimes lead to the world stage of the Olympics, where we can all marvel at human ability and achievement on our screens.

I often have a similar experience of amazement at my desk as I reconstruct the incredible journeys of the long-distance migratory birds I study. Really!

Olympic cross-country skiers travel at speeds of about 30-64 km/hr. Impressive, particularly in the context of a 50 km endurance race in a cold climate. Now consider a Purple Martin (a swallow) on spring migration. Using a miniaturized device that can be attached backpack–style to a bird, I discovered that a female Purple Martin travelled from the heart of Brazil’s Amazon basin all the way to her breeding site near Edmonton, Alberta at an astonishing average speed of 600 km/d. For an 8 hour flight, that is 75 km an hour!

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The journey of a Purple Martin revealed through a tracking device. This bird travelled over 21,500 km in less than a year! Click on picture to enlarge.

Even more amazing, this bird flew over 10, 200 km, with a 1000 km open-water, non-stop crossing of the Gulf of Mexico, and rocketed back to her northern home in only 17 days. In total, this frequent flyer logged 21, 500 km over the year. Definitely a medal-worthy feat of physical ability, particularly considering this bird is about the size of a tennis ball and weighs just 45 grams. This rate of travel is much faster than previously predicted for songbirds. It’s just one of the remarkable things we are learning about the journeys of migratory birds now that we have the ability to track individuals over their entire routes.

Our important task now is to map and conserve the huge habitat requirements of these speedy travelers to protect this marvel of evolution. That is our gold standard and what we need to work collectively towards in our conservation Olympics.

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