Until recently, ornithologists believed birds ran out of puff after travelling around 5000km non-stop. By Ed Yong. Which came first, the chicken or the egg? But once they reached their wintering site, landing wasn’t part of the plan. Why should a bird evolve to be continuously airborne, rather than to land occasionally? As a result, common swifts are among nature’s greatest aeronauts, superbly adapted for a life spent largely in the skies. Discover our latest special editions covering a range of fascinating topics from the latest scientific discoveries to the big ideas explained. Asleep on the Wing The data showed that these birds stayed aloft for 200 days. Sign in to manage your newsletter preferences. By patrolling large swathes of sky, and never wasting time on the ground, swifts might be able to snap up more insect prey. It’s a feat only beaten by a man-made aircraft this summer, with the flight of the UK-built pilotless drone Zephyr. Migration • Migration season is October through March. Maybe they do what dolphins do, sending one half of their brains to sleep at a time so they can stay continuously alert. How long can a bird fly before it has to rest? © 1996-2015 National Geographic Society, © 2015- This August, Niels Rattenborg of the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Germany proved that frigate birds—large seabirds with piratical tendencies—do the same. “They feed in the air, they mate in the air, they get nest material in the air,” says Susanne Åkesson from Lund University in Sweden. While migrating south to Africa the birds would stop occasionally. And all those daytime thermals are a pain in the butt; doesn’t make for smooth sailing. 2020 National Geographic Partners, LLC. To be ready to migrate in the fall, geese start … They’ll only be back in the following June, and they’ll spend the intervening 10 months almost continuously in the air. That was especially surprising because alpine swifts are twice the size of common swifts, with wingspans of up to 22 inches. All rights reserved. The data revealed that some swifts were almost never inactive during their long migrations. Åkesson and Hedenström suspect that this was because they hadn’t finished replacing their wing and tail feathers during their annual molt. Why didn’t dinosaurs evolve to be more intelligent? But while the physics might add up, it’s still unclear how the bird manages to travel so far without getting lost. But geese don’t soar, and they don’t have need to fly in circles. Such long nonstop flights imply that swifts must be able to sleep while flying. Dr Michael Mosley on how to get even more from your daily walks. Thanks! By clicking “sign up” you are agreeing to our terms and conditions and privacy policy. Flight after several weeks, their young near water ( any water for. 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