A recent story from China in The New York Times International edition (November 15, 2016) caught my eye. Many “common cuckoos” spend the spring and early summer of each year in wetlands near Beijing, China. They feast on caterpillars and grubs in the wet soil. By summer, however, temperatures get pretty hot and the cuckoos migrate. But to where? No one really knew. It was assumed they went south maybe as far as India, or maybe just to Southern China.
Cuckoos are not great flyers. Also they are very small – 3½ oz – and do not live long.
Researchers in China outfitted five cuckoos with micro solar power tags (0.16 oz) connected to satellites. They gave the birds catchy names, Flappy, Skybomb, Hope, Zigui and Meng (“Dream Bird” in Chinese) and encouraged school children to follow along on the Internet.
As the migration started, fate caught up to two of the five birds. Hope and Zigui’s signals went dead. But Flappy, Skybomb and Meng soldiered on, reaching India by mid-September. Many thought the mystery was over, India was the destination of choice. But things were just getting started. Flappy flew West towards Africa taking a cautious path across the Arabian Sea to Oman, sticking close to land. The bird arrived in Kenya/Ethiopia in early November, a distance of 5,000 miles from the Beijing starting point.
Skybomb however was not to be outdone by this feat of flying. This bird struck out from Southern India straight across the Indian Ocean towards Africa. Flying at roughly 2,600 feet and in an almost perfectly straight line, Skybomb flew non-stop, covering 2,300 miles in three days. A third bird, Meng, was apparently about to start a similar flight across the Indian Ocean as The New York Times article went to press.
Both Flappy and Skybomb found nutrition in the wetlands of Kenya/Ethiopia and are rebuilding their energy. How a 3 ½ oz bird can survive a five thousand mile trip is truly amazing. Scientists speculate that with even a slight increase in the wind speed or change in winddirection, Skybomb might not have made it over the Indian Ocean. But he did. It is expected that if the birds survive, they will make the return 5,000 mile trip and be back in their familiar Beijing wetlands in May. The satellites will be tracking them.
The story of Skybomb, Flappy and Meng and so many other species raise some important issues. As Thomas Hobbes noted in his famous (and edited) quote, life is “nasty, brutish and short.” Who knows what might happen on a three-day, non-stop flight across the Indian Ocean? Who knows what can happen to our health, good one day and gone the next? Who knows what can happen if we are in the wrong place at the wrong time during a terrorist event? Life is fickle and we need to be thankful each day to see a new Sunrise. And then there is the second issue. We just hope we can keep this precious Earth intact enough to protect all the amazing creatures of the world – including us.