Tour de France cyclists are some of the fittest athletes on Earth. Many have heart muscle that is 40 percent bigger than the average heart. The pros spend about 25 hours per week riding to train for the big race, and during the race, they can be on their bikes for up to six hours per day! But did you know there are members of the animal kingdom that put these super-athletes to shame? One of the most impressive weighs no more than 20 ounces!
In 2007, biologist Robert Gill and his team set out to study this creature—the bar-tailed godwit—and its migratory patterns. They caught 16 godwits in New Zealand and fitted them with battery-operated tracking devices. The semi-bionic birdies left New Zealand in March. They flew a distance of 6,300 miles to the coast of China with no layovers! After resting for five weeks, they continued on to Alaska in May (another 3,000 miles), arriving about five days later.
From May until August, the godwits enjoy an Alaskan mollusk feast—and these birds really eat a lot! Actually, the godwit will double its body mass in three months, and 50 to 55 percent of its total weight ends up being pure fat. In the godwit’s defense, this apparent gluttony serves a great purpose when the now enormous bird has to launch its pudgy body into the sky and fly south—really, really south. The return trip to New Zealand is over 7,200 miles long, and the bird needs fuel for that trip.
Just before the birds leave, the godwits’ gizzards and intestines shrink to make room for all of the fat they’ve just produced. After this internal reorganization, one female specimen, whom birders affectionately refer to as E7, took off on Aug. 29, 2007, for what Gill called an “extreme endurance flight.” E7, like the other godwits, wasn’t stopping. Biologists were shocked as they watched the dots on the tracking map continue moving forward at an average speed of 34 miles per hour—reaching altitudes of over one mile, day after day. Over the sea, the birds did not come down once for food or water. E7 made it to New Zealand—to the exact area where she was tagged earlier that year—in just a little over eight days.
The fastest human long-distance runner would take over 600 days to travel the distance this bird does in eight. Even though flying over the huge expanse of the Pacific Ocean, with only the monotonous view of water below, the birds are able to take detours and find favorable winds—all without losing their way, in order to get to New Zealand efficiently and land precisely where they need to.
The journey requires the godwits to expend up to 10 times the energy they use at rest. That is almost double the human record, which goes to those Tour de France bicyclists who expend energy at six times their normal rate.
Once the birds reach dry ground, they promptly pass out. According to Gill’s observations, the birds come in “wobbly-legged and immediately sit down on their bellies and go to sleep for a few hours.”
This adventure isn’t just a once-in-a-bird-lifetime feat. The godwit travels 18,000 miles every year once it reaches age 4, and it lives for about 20 years! In the average lifespan of the bird, it travels the equivalent distance of 12 times around the Earth.
Everything about the godwit’s life cycle—from its shrinking digestive system to the fascinating use of energy during its marathon flight—really does tally up to the credit of a genius Creator!