The Case of the Gunslinging Godwit

Bird Migration

The Case of the Gunslinging Godwit


Imagine you are at the Olympics, and you are competing in target shooting. You have an extremely accurate target rifle that can make 3-inch groupings at 1000 yards — that’s about as accurate as rifles get. Now imagine that they set up a target much, much further away: let’s say 7000 miles. With that same, super-accurate rifle even your best shot’s groupings would expand from 3 inches to 14 miles, and would take 3 1/2 hours to get there (these are theoretical bullets, of course).

Now instead of a rifle, I’m going to hand you a Bar-tailed Godwit. True, you’d get some odd looks at the competition, and it might not be your best choice for target practice at 100 yards. But at 7000 miles, you’d win gold every time. Because Bar-tailed Godwits fly 7000 miles between Alaska and New Zealand every fall and hit their target perfectly. That distance, 7000 miles, is hard to wrap your mind around. It’s the same distance as a flight from Los Angeles to Istanbul, which even on a commercial jet takes 13 hours, 35,000 gallons of fuel and is 11 time zones away.

The Bar-tailed Godwit loads up on about 4 ounces of fat, and flies for 8 days straight, 24 hours a day, over open, unforgiving ocean. That’s 4 1/2 days longer than any solar-powered aircraft has managed. The trips it makes annually dwarf anything we have accomplished with technology.

Godwits are shorebirds — they feed on tidal flats and along shorelines — and have a distinctive upswept bill that gives them a permanent, enigmatic smile. Maybe that smile reflected a secret that they knew, that incredible flight, that we were only just recently let in on with satellite-based tracking devices.

In 2007, using the same time of devices that CTT manufactures, a few godwits were fitted with tiny, solar-powered trackers, and that allowed scientists to follow their exact journey, which has proven to be the longest non-stop flight for any bird.

With Terra, we hope to discover more of those secrets. There are so many birds out there, and we really know so little about what their lives involve. Terra will let us listen in on those whispered conversations between migrants and will help us understand what they are about. We are sure that once researchers are let into that secret space, the godwits won’t be the only ones smiling.


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