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5 Amazing Bird Migration Records

Autumn is here (technically) and that means fall migration is beginning. It’s the time of year when countless birds make the trek toward warmer temperatures. Birders everywhere are grabbing their binoculars to prepare for the smorgasbord of species passing through.

In honor of this fun and exciting occasion, we thought we’d share five of the most awesome and unbelievable bird migration accomplishments.

Highest Flying Migration – Bar-headed Goose

"Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0"
“Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0”

Legend has it that the Bar-headed Goose has been spotted flying over the top of Mount Everest, which has a peak at about 29,000 ft.

Although the Everest fact hasn’t been verified, the highest recorded Bar-headed Goose has been tracked at a still dizzying 24,000 ft. Up at that altitude, there’s less than 10% of the oxygen found at sea level.

How do these geese fly at such high altitudes? Scientists say that the geese actually hug the mountain terrain to save energy. This saves energy, but it doesn’t explain the fact that they don’t need to acclimate or train for such an amazing feat of traveling over the top of the Himalayas.

Biologists hope to study their genetics some day to see what makes them tick.

Longest Migration – Arctic Tern

Image by Malene Thyssen - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0
Image by Malene Thyssen – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

Here’s a fact that will blow your mind: When added up over a lifetime, the total journey of an Arctic Tern is equivalent to more than three trips to the moon and back. Each year, Artic Terns migrate an average of 44,000 miles.

This annual migration from pole to pole is the longest migration of any bird. In fact, a 2013 study of a half a dozen Arctic Terns found the longest recorded migration was 57,000 miles, which is the longest of any animal.

When you think of all the dangers a tern can encounter on its epic journey around the world, it’s amazing that they make it to their destinations with regularity.

Longest Migration for a Songbird – Northern Wheatear

Image by Ómar Runólfsson. Licensed under CC BY 2.0
Image by Ómar Runólfsson. Licensed under CC BY 2.0

The Arctic Tern is a medium-sized bird that’s about 14 inches from its beak to its tail. However, the Northern Wheatear is a mere 6 inches and travels about 18,000 miles a year.

This is the longest migration for any small bird, and it’s no simple task. The Northern Wheatear travels across oceans, ice, and deserts from Alaska to Sub-Saharan Africa.

Some of the birds that breed in northeastern Canada will actually just travel across the Atlantic but those that breed in Alaska will usually take the long way through Russia. It can take three months to reach Africa and two and a half months to return to Alaska.

In recent years, improving technology has allowed scientists to study smaller birds and the longest migration pound-for-pound might go to the Blackpoll Warbler.

Fastest Migrating Bird – Great Snipe

By Thho46 (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons
By Thho46 (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons
We’re all familiar that the world’s fastest animal is the Peregrine Falcon, which can travel up to speeds up to 242 miles per hour. However, that speed is not sustainable.

The bird that travels at the highest speeds for the longest distance is the Great Snipe. They’ve been recorded flying up to 60 miles per hour. What’s even more impressive is that there is little evidence the birds use wind to fly faster.

The stocky wading birds are not particularly aerodynamic, but they’ve been known to travel 4,200 miles non-stop in just 48 hours.

Longest Recorded Non-Stop Flight – Bar-tailed Godwit

"Bar-tailed Godwit" by Andreas Trepte - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5
“Bar-tailed Godwit” by Andreas Trepte – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5

The Great Snipe’s 48-hour journey flying straight for 4,200 miles is impressive, but that’s not the longest recorded non-stop flight. That honor goes to the Bar-tailed Godwit.

Taking almost nine days, the bird travels nearly 7,000 miles without stopping. Think about it. The bird doesn’t stop to eat or sleep. It just keeps going and going.

The record goes to a female Bar-tailed Godwit that flew 7,258 miles from Alaska to New Zealand.

Timothy Martinez Jr. is a writer and freelance journalist. His work has been published in The Times-Picayune in New Orleans, Remapping Debate in New York City and other publications. He’s been a bird lover since he was young and currently lives in New Orleans, L.A.


  1. Fantastic birds. Remarkable evolution ! Alaska to New Zealand, Artic pole to pole, Alaska to South Africa via the Atlantic or Russia ! Remarkable, thank God.

    Thank you

  2. Its amazing, these birds though small but have best navigation system, anti sleep deprivation methods, hunger control, and fatigue less machine inside, question who made them and they have been doing it million years or more, and without going to any school and universitys,.

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