February 3 – Frequent Flier

Today’s Factismal: Over its lifetime, a typical Arctic Tern will fly about 1,320,000 miles or more than five times the distance from the Earth to the Moon.

In 1638, Francis Goodwin wrote a science fiction novel featuring a man who traveled from the Earth to the Moon in a carriage pulled by swans. He should have used arctic terns. These amazing little birds fly from their summer home in the Arctic (June, July, and August) to their summer home in the Antarctic (December, January, and February) every year. Many of them make the 12,000 mile journey just two months after being hatched! And, most amazing of all, they spend almost the entire journey out over the ocean, only rarely coming into sight of land.

Arctic Terns nesting on a shipwreck in Ushuaia, Argentia (my camera)

Arctic Terns nesting on a shipwreck in Ushuaia, Argentia (my camera)

Though biologists don’t know for sure why the Arctic Tern makes such an extreme voyage every year, they suspect that it has to do with the extreme cold of winter at the poles and with the need to avoid predators. Because it lives in the cold Arctic and Antarctic regions, the Arctic Tern has very few predators to deal with. And because those regions have plentiful sunlight during their summers, it is easier for the Arctic Tern to spot fish and other food.

Once the Arctic Tern has spotted its food, the bird dives into the water and jumps right back out with a wriggling fish or a beakful of krill. And they start doing the dive as early as two months old, while their proud parents coach them from above.

A colony of Arctic Terns in the Lemaire Channel, Antarctica (My camera)

A colony of Arctic Terns in the Lemaire Channel, Antarctica (My camera)

Like many other birds (and people), Arctic Terns spend a lot of time caring for their young. In Greenland, Russia, Alaska, and other cold places, Arctic terns take turns sitting on the nest, which is little more than a hollow space among the rocks and lichen, for a month straight after the eggs are laid; there are typically two to three eggs in a clutch. The chicks grow from smaller than a child’s fist to larger than a brick over the course of another month. Once the chick has grown its adult feathers, the parents teach it to fish and fly. By then, the Arctic summer is aver, so the family heads south as a group; once in Antarctica, the chicks meet and mate for life, abandoning their parents for good.

An Arctic Tern flies over Cuverville Island in Antarctica (my camera)

An Arctic Tern flies over Cuverville Island in Antarctica (my camera)

If you’d like to help scientists understand the Arctic Tern and other birds, then please take part in the annual Great Backyard Bird Count (February 14-17):
http://www.birdsource.org/gbbc

3 thoughts on “February 3 – Frequent Flier

  1. Pingback: August 31 – For the birds – Little facts about science

  2. Pingback: November 2 – All’s Weddell That Ends Weddell | Little facts about science

  3. Pingback: January 5 – Happy New Bird! | Little facts about science

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