Northern wheatears, robin-sized songbirds, have just finished a summer alongside the musk oxen of northern Alaska and are now well on their way to visit their winter neighbors, the zebra.
Taking off around midnight in late August, these birds have begun their yearly migration to their winter home. From northern Alaska, they’ll fly across Russia, Kazakhstan, the Arabian Desert, and the Red Sea to land in Eastern Africa. This journey of about 9,000 miles will take them three months. And then, come spring, the wheatears will fly back to Alaska to feast on the ample bug population.
The wheatears leaving from Alaska take a vastly different route than the wheatears leaving eastern Canada, who fly over Greenland to get to Western Africa (a much shorter route). According to research by Franz Bairlein, director of Germany’s Institute of Avian Research, the two groups of birds have also adopted different strategies for fattening up prior to flight. The eastern North American birds, who’s journey is primarily over the Atlantic Ocean, fatten up massively before migrating, while the Alaskan wheatears do not. These differences are genetically hard-wired into the birds, such that if an Alaskan wheatear egg was transplanted to Baffin Island, the bird would still fly westward.