AVIAN WORLD TOUR

The epic migration of three tiny birds from Beijing to East Africa, tracked on Google Maps

Where do common cuckoos spend their winter holidays ? There’s no way to know for sure—Yelp doesn’t track avian piña colada hotspots—until now.

Led by conservationist Terry Townsend and ecologist Chris Hewson, a group of conservationists in July launched the Beijing Cuckoo Project, which handpicked birds from the outskirts of Beijing to record their epic migration journey. Saddled with tiny GPS devices, the birds’ travels are being tracked on Google Maps. Townsend checks their geolocation daily, marking new stopovers and maintaining a travel diary.

path of cuckoos migrating and mapped
Transcontinental flights.

While Beijing is hardly a wildlife paradise, migratory birds pass through the city as they escape freezing winters in Siberia. “Beijing is sort of like a service station on this superhighway,” Townsend says. An earlier tracking project in the UK found that cuckoos in Europe would migrate to West Africa, but until the Beijing project, no one knew their Asian counterparts’ migration pattern.

beijing-birding
From left to right: Skybomb Bolt, Flappy McFlapperson and Meng Zhi Juan (Birding Beijing)

The project has had some mishaps: Two of the five birds haven’t shown movement for months, and may have died. But those remaining are giving scientists insight into a remarkable trip. Affectionately named Flappy McFlapperson, Skybomb Bolt, and Meng Zhi juan (translated as “Dream Bird”), they traveled from northeast China through southeast Asia and landed in Kenya, Mozambique, and Somalia, respectively.

The birds have flown between 10,500km and 12,500km each (6,524 to 7,767 miles), with Skybomb Bolt reaching Africa first, after a nonstop four-day journey across the Arabian Sea. “What an unbelievable bird!,” Townsend wrote on Oct. 31, after Skybomb arrived on the Somali coast.

“Before they make this flight, they’ll feed up a lot so they’ll put on a lot of body weight of fat reserves. They’ll burn that fat during the course of the journey, and they don’t sleep,” says Townsend. “They just don’t. This is an incredible thing.”

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Skybomb Bolt’s last location on Nov. 22, 2016. (Google Maps/Beijing Cuckoo Project)
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Flappy McFlapperson’s last location on Dec. 14, 2016, near Bangali, near the Kora National Reserve, Kenya. (Google Maps/Beijing Cuckoo Project)

The Cuckoo project is helping conservationists study migration behavior and identify the birds’ resting habitats, but it hasn’t yet provided insight into how the cuckoos know their way to Africa. They couldn’t have learned the route from their parents or from a flock—cuckoos lay eggs in other birds’ nests and fly solo—and there are much closer destinations with warm weather and plenty of food. The species evolved genetically from Africa, so one theory holds that their flight itinerary might somehow be determined by their DNA.

Townsend says the birds are expected to head back toward Beijing by the end of May.

Sarah Slobin contributed.

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