Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Wednesday, November 23, 2022

Record breakers, from turkeys to that Bar-tailed Godwit

Bar-tailed Godwit

Guinness World Records has 973 bird-related records, including the slowest flying birds, American and European Woodcocks who can fly a mere 5 miles per hour without stalling while displaying; the strongest bird of prey, the Harpy Eagle; and the bird with the highest-pitched call, the Black Jacobin, a Brazilian hummingbird whose lowest recorded sounds are above 10 kHz, making the song higher-pitched than the hearing capabilities of any bird so far tested. It’s possible the jacobin’s calls are too high for even them to hear, meaning their call could have a function unrelated to vocal communication. I love ornithological mysteries like this, though I suspect the birds can indeed hear their own calls, meaning ornithologists haven’t quite figured out how to accurately test hearing capabilities in such tiny birds.  

Wild Turkey displaying

This week, when normal people are thinking about turkeys as a Thanksgiving meal, or because they’ve seen President Biden or their governor pardoning one, or read about or saw video accounts of a Wild Turkey attacking people in Washington, D.C., I’m thinking about turkeys holding the world record as the "bird with the strongest gizzard." Yep—that thick organ found in the little bag of innards inside a store-bought turkey is more amazing in life than in the most delicious giblet gravy or stuffing. According to the Guinness account, “One [turkey] specimen had crushed 24 walnuts in their shells within 4 hours, and had also ground surgical lancet blades into grit within 16 hours.”  

Bar-tailed Godwit

The whole reason I’ve been checking out Guinness World Records is that a splendid bird I saw in Alaska this year, the Bar-tailed Godwit, made international news in October when one individual broke the record for the longest non-stop journey of any wild bird. Some whales may make even longer non-stop journeys, but they feed along the way. The godwit's flight was the longest non-stop journey without feeding en route of any animal in the world. 

Before this past October, the bird holding the record was another Bar-tailed Godwit individual—a satellite-tagged adult male who, in 2020, flew from Alaska to New Zealand without stopping for food or rest, 7,580 miles away. That same individual broke his own record with an 8,100-mile flight on his next migration in 2021.

But this year, scientists placed a transmitter on a first-year bird still too young for them to determine the bird's sex. That bird left the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta on October 13, and 11 days later made it to Ansons Bay in Tasmania, some 8,425 miles away. Again, this was entirely without stopping or feeding. It took 11 days and 1 hour to make that amazing trip. And godwits can only fly by steadily flapping their wings—they can’t soar to minimize their energy use as eagles and hawks do. To have the strength to do this, they boost the size of their pectoral muscles and heart before the trip. And to fuel the flight, they put on enough fat to double their weight. All this requires them to shrink their other internal organs to make room for the enlarged muscles and all that fat. 

The individual birds bearing these satellite trackers are not the only ones who have made these impressive flights—godwits virtually always travel in flocks, so any birds with them accomplished the exact same feat without any fanfare at all. And interestingly, it’s very unlikely that these flights that made the Guinness Book are really the furthest any Bar-tailed Godwits have flown—they’re just the furthest we happen to know about. Satellite trackers and the technology to read them are expensive, so very, very few birds bear these trackers. Like Wisdom, the banded Laysan Albatross on Midway Island who holds the record as the oldest wild bird ever, this record is only among birds we actually know about—there may be albatrosses years or decades older than Wisdom who have never been banded, and Bar-tailed Godwits who have travelled even farther. 

Nevertheless, the information we get about tracked birds gives us a fuller and more nuanced look at their species. And regardless, even if a banded or marked individual hasn’t done anything genuinely unique, it’s special and lovely to know about a special and lovely individual.