Pied flycatchers cruise nonstop for days to cross the Sahara

a pied flycatcher

Pied flycatchers (Ficedula hypoleuca) take an autumn trip south from breeding grounds in Europe to wintering grounds in west Africa. After stoping over in Spain, the birds fly 37 to 48 hours nonstop. Based on body weight and average ground speed, they can cover 2,000 to 2,600 kilometers in that time period — putting them at the southern edge of the Sahara. 

Merijin Loeve/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0

Pied flycatchers, which curse biogeography every time they have to fly across the Sahara to migrate, apparently cross the desert with daytime flight as well as night flying. 

For a long time, the presumption was that most migratory songbirds on a Sahara crossing took what shelter they could from the daytime sun and did most of their flying at night. But that assumption is breaking down, Janne Ouwehand and Christiaan Both of the University of Groningen in the Netherlands write April 12 in Biology Letters.

The researchers fitted flycatchers (Ficedula hypoleuca) with light and temperature data-loggers. During seasonal migrations, flycatchers put in around 40 to 60 hours of uninterrupted flying. There have been some other efforts to track birds across the Sahara, but Ouwehand and Both say this is the first study to suggest that songbirds fly nonstop across the desert. 

Helen Thompson is the multimedia editor. She has undergraduate degrees in biology and English from Trinity University and a master’s degree in science writing from Johns Hopkins University.

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