Researchers Learn About Cuckoo Migration Thanks to GPS Tracking

2 Feb 2017

If you’ve wondered where Cuckoos migrate during the winter, in the past there hadn’t been a definitive answer. However, now the birds are being tracked on Google Maps with the help of a GPS tracking device saddled to their backs.

Beijing Cuckoo Project was launched by a group of conservationists and led by ecologist Chris Hewson and conservationist Terry Townsend. Its goal is to record the birds migration journey. Each bird for the project was picked by hand from the Beijing outskirts and equipped with tiny GPS tracking devices.

The birds traveling activity is now being tracked on Google Maps. Each day, Townsend monitors their geolocation, marks new stopovers and maintains a travel diary.

Migratory birds often migrate to Beijing to get away from Siberia’s cold winter months. According to Townsend, you can equate Beijing to a service station you would find on a superhighway. The UK had a tracking project going earlier where they learned that cuckoos would travel to West Africa from Europe, however, nobody knew about the Asian cuckoo migration pattern until the Beijing project.

The project isn’t perfect, of course. There hasn’t been any movement from two birds out of the five for months and is suspected they might have died. Scientists, however, are gaining a lot of insight from the other three.

These three birds that have been named Skybomb Bolt, Flappy McFlapperson and Meng Zhi juan (Dream Bird) traveled from China in the Northeast through Asia in the Southeast and then landed in Mozambique, Kenya and Somalia.

Each bird has flown up to 7,767 miles (12,500km) each. Skybomb Bolt was the first bird to reach Africa after it flew across the Arabian Sea non-stop for 4 days. Townsend refers to it as an unbelievable bird. They feed up a great deal before they make the trip which adds on a lot of body weight of fat reserves. Then, while on their journey, they don’t sleep and they burn off the fat.

Conservationists are able to study migration behavior thanks to the Cuckoo project and identify where the birds rest. However, the project hasn’t shown them how the birds know how to get to Africa. This was not something they learned from a flock or from their parents since cuckoos lay their eggs in the nests of other birds and then fly solo. Because the birds were genetically evolved from Africa, the theory is that it is through their DNA that they learned their flight itinerary.

The birds should be heading back toward Beijing by the end of the month of May, says Townsend.

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