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Tiny bird makes huge journey every year

Northern Wheatear
Image by Bjørn Christian Tørrissen

Meet the Northern Wheatear, an insect-eating bird about 6 inches long that weighs less than an ounce. On the outside, it looks like any ordinary beautiful bird, but when you delve deeper, this is one of most hardcore travelers on the planet.

According to the BBC, this little bird travels from the Arctic to sub-Saharan Africa and back each year. The half of the species that lives in the Canadian arctic travels over Greenland to Africa on a whopping 4,500 mile journey. The wheatears that live in Alaska go over Russia and Kazakhstan and through the Arabian desert to get to western Africa. That’s about 9,000 miles one way.

Impressive migrations are nothing out of the ordinary for birds, but each time I hear one of these amazing stories of a tiny bird traveling long distances, it’s difficult not to be astonished.

To put it into perspective, Alasdair Wilkins from io9 makes some stunning comparisons:

Proportionally speaking, we would have to travel roughly 50 million miles to cover the same sort of distance these wheatears do. In other words, for us to migrate on the same scale as these tiny Arctic birds, our entire species would need to travel to Mars and back every single year. (And yes, I’m aware that’s not exactly a fair analogy – it’s simply too awesome not to point out.)

Scientists found out about this remarkable journey by putting tiny tracking devices on the birds. Before this they had no idea where these arctic birds went for the winter. This is likely the largest range of any songbird in the world.

One of the major questions is why would these birds make such a long journey (3/4 the circumference of the earth to be exact). The scientists in the study posit that the birds have been embarking on this trek since the time of glaciation. This is just a testament to the old adage that old habits die hard.

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. Fabulous creature this bird is that God made. Wish I saw one here in PA!

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