Flying to Africa alone

Animal: cuckoos

The cuckoo is a long distance traveller who, above all, flies at night. In Germany, most birds arrive in their breeding grounds in April. In August, they start their journey to Africa.

The migration of songbirds is one of the most remarkable natural phenomena. It is incredible how birds undertake their journeys and arrive together at the same location over many years. Even young birds cover thousands of kilometres alone and find wintering grounds they have never visited before.

Many details about bird migration remain unclear, as following bird movements over long distances is difficult. Icarus now enables scientists to track various species of cuckoo on their flights where young birds undertake their journeys completely independently without any experienced conspecifics. This gives researchers an insight into what the birds use for orientation and how their routes have emerged over the course of evolution. They can also evaluate whether young cuckoos can adapt their flight direction if they have strayed from the path and from what age they are able to do so.

In future, the scientists even plan to equip small songbird species with even more lightweight transmitters to establish whether the results can also be transferred to other migratory birds. In view of the short succession of generations of small birds, it is easier to analyze the consequences of environmental changes on survival and reproductive capability.

Location: Europe and Africa

Contact: Kasper Thorup, Center for Macroecology, Evolution and Climate, University of Copenhagen, Denmark

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