For the Birds Radio Program: 100,000 Miles (Chevy Citation)

Original Air Date: Dec. 16, 1987

Laura’s car passed the 100,000 milestone, making her wonder how many birds fly that many miles.

Audio missing


(Recording of a Semipalmated Sandpiper)

Our car passed the 100,000 mile mark this month–I watched the odometer start afresh from 99,999 to zero, wishing the rest of the car would instantly rejuvenate along with the mileage. But Chevy Citations aren’t built as strong, quite, as birds, and this car doesn’t have a prayer of clocking the mileage of, say, a Barn Swallow. In swooping back and forth through the air to catch flying insects, a Barn Swallow flies about 600 miles a day–at that rate, its odometer easily clocks 100,000 miles every five and a half months. Barn Swallows don’t just fly around in circles, though–they also fly round trip between North and South America annually. Swallows nesting in the Yukon fly back and forth to Argentina, 7,000 miles away, every year of their lives. Yet in spite of their mileage, they can last for over eight years—longer than a lot of cars. Of course you might expect a 2,000 pound car to be sturdier, and go a lot farther, than a fragile bird which weighs in at only 3/4 of an ounce—the weight of a Christmas Card—but you’d be wrong.

The other extremely long distance migrants are also species that spend much of their lives on the wing–like the Common Nighthawk and the Arctic tern. Nighthawks swoop about in the air for hours every night catching flying insects. Little wonder they have the stamina to fly down to southern South America and back each year. Arctic Terns spend their days flying above lakes and seacoasts, watching for fish near the surface, which they can snap up. These longest flyers of all migrate between the Arctic circle and the Antarctic circle every year.

The all-time flight speed record for a bird was made in 1985, but just verified a few weeks ago. A tiny shorebird called a Semipalmated Sandpiper was captured and banded at Plymouth Beach, Massachusetts, on August 12, 1985. When it was released, it flew all the way to Guyana, 2,800 miles away, just to be shot by a hunter on August 15. The bird was sold for food, but the hunter mailed the band number to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, who in turn notified the bander. The oddest thing about this flight was the bird’s amazing fuel economy. The sandpiper weighed only 24 grams–four-fifths of an ounce–in Massachusetts. Shorebirds usually fatten up as much as possible before heading on south–this species normally weighs about 40 grams–that is, 1 1/2 ounces, before taking leave of the United States. So a 2800 mile flight in only four days by this undersized bird was truly an Olympian feat–one my poor car would be utterly incapable of.

Of course, if there is a fastest long-distance flyer, there also must be a slowest one–the Poky Little Puppy of the bird world. That distinction probably belongs to a young pigeon in the Bronx Zoo named 1708, who was sent off 213 miles to Washington D.C. for a race in 1932. All her coop-mates quickly returned, but it took her fully 8 years to check in– making her rate of flight an average of 16 feet per hour–a speed my car might envy on some frigid blizzardy days in the Northland.

(Recording of a car starting up)

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”