How Birds Use Stored Energy and Flight Patterns During Long Night Flights

Jenn Hoskins
31st May, 2024

How Birds Use Stored Energy and Flight Patterns During Long Night Flights

Image Source: Natural Science News, 2024

Key Findings

  • The study took place at a Swiss Alpine pass and examined how migratory birds manage their energy during long flights
  • Birds with higher fat reserves primarily use fat for energy, while those with lower fat stores increase protein metabolism
  • Birds adjust their flight behaviors, such as descending flights, to optimize energy use and prepare for landing
Migratory birds undertake remarkable non-stop flights spanning hours or even days, relying primarily on fat as fuel and supplementing with protein. While previous research on homing pigeons and birds in wind tunnels has provided insights into how fat and protein contribute to energy expenditure, these studies have been limited to controlled environments. The Swiss Ornithological Institute aimed to bridge this gap by examining the energy metabolism of free-flying migratory birds under natural conditions[1]. Previous studies have documented the impressive non-stop flights of bar-tailed godwits, which traverse thousands of kilometers across the Pacific Ocean without landing[2]. These findings highlighted the physiological capabilities of migratory birds, suggesting that long-duration flights involve complex metabolic adjustments. Another study on great snipes revealed that these birds change their flight altitudes dramatically, possibly to manage body temperature and avoid predators during their non-stop migrations[3]. Additionally, research on yellow-rumped warblers demonstrated that the relationship between hematocrit (the proportion of red blood cells in blood) and exercise performance varies with altitude, indicating that birds may adapt their physiology based on flight conditions[4]. The current study by the Swiss Ornithological Institute focused on understanding how migratory birds manage their energy reserves during extended flights in natural settings. The researchers found that the proportion of fat and protein utilized as fuel varies with flight duration and the birds' body fat stores. Specifically, birds with higher fat reserves relied more on fat, while those with lower fat stores increased their protein metabolism. This adaptive strategy ensures that birds can sustain long flights even when fat reserves are depleted. Flight behavior also significantly influences metabolism. Descending flights, which are often used for rest or navigation adjustments, were found to alter the birds' metabolic rates. These findings suggest that migratory birds optimize their energy use by adjusting both their fuel sources and flight behaviors based on their physiological state and environmental conditions. This study builds on earlier research by providing real-world data on how migratory birds manage their energy during long flights. It supports the idea that birds have evolved complex physiological mechanisms to cope with the demands of migration. The findings also align with previous observations that migratory birds exhibit remarkable flexibility in their flight altitudes and metabolic strategies to optimize performance[2][3][4]. In conclusion, the Swiss Ornithological Institute's study offers valuable insights into the energy metabolism of free-flying migratory birds. By examining how these birds manage their fat and protein reserves and adjust their flight behaviors, the research enhances our understanding of the physiological adaptations that enable such extraordinary migratory feats.

BiochemAnimal ScienceEvolution


Main Study

1) Energy supply during nocturnal endurance flight of migrant birds: effect of energy stores and flight behaviour

Published 30th May, 2024

Related Studies

2) Extreme endurance flights by landbirds crossing the Pacific Ocean: ecological corridor rather than barrier?

3) Extreme altitude changes between night and day during marathon flights of great snipes.

4) Effects of experimental manipulation of hematocrit on avian flight performance in high- and low-altitude conditions.

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