China has exported 11 satellites to nine countries.
Chinese poets have often used the cuckoo’s arrival as a symbol of homecoming, but fewknewwhere the bird came from.
Now, modern technology has provided the answer. Satellite tracking has shown that thecommoncuckoo can travel up to 12,000 kilometers between its winter grounds, as far away as East Africa, and its summer home in Beijing.
Chinese and British ornithologists and bird lovers caught 16 cuckoos in three Beijingwetland parks inMay, and fitted satellite tracking tags to five of the birds.
Data show that a male bird dubbed “Skybomb Bolt” completed a 3,700 km nonstop flight from central India, across the Arabian Sea, to Somalia earlier in November, while two birds flew to northern India. The other two were missing.
It is thought to be the longest migration route known for any cuckoo — much longer than that of the European cuckoo.
“Before leaving India, he had already traveled nearly as far as some UK cuckoos do on their entire migration,” Chris Hewson, a researcher and member of the British Trust for Ornithology, said of Skybomb Bolt. “Watching how it has made the world look small is a fantastic and humbling experience.”
Beijing cuckoos typically fly south in October and return in April. Though well-known for their distinctive call, the birds are secretive. Shi Yang, a birdwatcher for 10 years, says cuckoos usually perch in the dense tree canopy.
“They are rarely seen unless they fly,” Shi said, so the birds are difficult to study, confounding ornithologists who speculate on their flight paths. The population, breeding seasons and threats they face are still unknown.
Only in recent years have tracking devices become small enough for a cuckoo to carry. In the past, satellite technology was only able to track larger birds, such as red-crowned cranes and whooper swans.
“In the future, when technology advances, we hope to track different, smaller birds too,” said Terry Townshend, an organizer of the project and founder of Birding Beijing, an NGO.
Townshend, a Briton who has been bird-watching in Beijing for five years, said schools have participated in the project, broadening its impact beyond traditional science circles. He frequently visits schools, gives lectures and leads bird-watching trips so that students can follow the cuckoos’ progress and learn more about their habitat.
In August, Beijing middle school students, who were studying the Olympics at the time, gave Skybomb Bolt his name — after world-champion Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt.
Illegal netting of migratory birds has been reported frequently in China this year, reinforcing the importance of public engagement, Townshend said.
“People want to protect what they love, but they can only love what they know,” he said. “It’s important to tell more people about the incredible journeys. When people learn about the cuckoo, they want to protect it.”
Watching how it has made the world look small is a fantastic and humbling experience.” Chris Hewson, researcher and member of the British Trust for Ornithology