What a moment! On the evening of 30 October 2016, a Common Cuckoo (Cuculus canorus) fitted with a satellite tag in Beijing in May 2016 made landfall in Africa, a journey of more than 9,000km, the most recent leg of which was a non-stop flight of over 3,700km from central India, across the Arabian Sea, to Somalia.
“Skybomb Bolt”, as he was named by schoolchildren in Beijing, is one of five Beijing Cuckoos fitted with transmitters as part of the Beijing Cuckoo Project. The project, a collaboration between the Beijing Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre (BWRRC), the China Birdwatching Society (CBS), the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) and Birding Beijing, was designed to bring together scientific discovery and public engagement with the primary aim of raising awareness of bird migration, conservation and the environment in China.
As in Europe, cuckoos are familiar and popular summer visitors to Beijing. Their well-known call, often heard for the first time in mid-May, is a traditional sign of spring. However, until this project, the wintering grounds and the routes they took to get there were unknown.
Thanks to technological advances, tracking devices are now small enough to be used on cuckoos and they are enabling scientists to gain an understanding of bird migration on a scale and depth as never before. Learning about the wintering grounds and the migration routes will inform conservationists as they seek to protect these special birds and many others like them. Importantly, using the BTO’s cuckoo tracking project as a model, this project has involved the participation of not only professional scientists but also volunteers from all walks of life. Through engaging schools to give names to the cuckoos, and providing updates on special webpages in English and Chinese, the impact of this project has been way beyond a traditional scientific endeavour.
After having tags fitted in May 2016, the “famous five” cuckoos spent the summer breeding season in Beijing, Mongolia and Russia and, in late July, they began their southward migration to unknown winter quarters.
The journeys of these amazing birds have captured the imagination of the general public both in China and overseas with hundreds of thousands of reactions on social media, including Twitter, Facebook and the Chinese social media equivalents of WeChat and Weibo.
The BTO’s Chris Hewson said:
“Watching how Skybomb has made ‘our’ world look small is a fantastic and humbling experience. Before leaving India, he had already travelled nearly as far as some UK cuckoos do on their entire migrations. This latest flight is the equivalent to the very longest desert crossings of UK birds, with no prospect of landing and consequently no margin for error. Given the rainfall patterns, we expect him to move gradually south, possibly as far again as this latest flight, through the winter. ‘Epic’ hardly seems to do justice to the travels of this small bird that has not previously been renowned for its powers of flight!”
Dr Ji Jianwei, Deputy Director of the Beijing Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre said:
“We are delighted to work with international partners to track the migration of Beijing Cuckoos. We have welcomed these birds every spring and, until now, have wondered where they go and how they get there. Thanks to this project, now we know! Inspiring examples of bird migration, such as this, are powerful ways to help raise awareness amongst the general public about the environment, on which we all depend.”
Professor Jonathan Baillie, Director of Conservation at the Zoological Society of London, said:
“The Beijing Cuckoo Project is revealing, for the first time, the remarkable journeys of one of our most familiar birds. That a bird weighing around 100g can fly more than 3,700km non-stop over the Arabian Sea is astonishing and, through the engagement of schoolchildren in the world’s most populous country, this project is inspiring a new generation.”
Skybomb Bolt was fitted with his tag at Hanshiqiao Wetland Park in Shunyi District, close to Beijing Capital International Airport in the northeast of the city. The managers of the nature reserve are proud of “their” cuckoo and are planning to set up a special board at the reserve to showcase Skybomb and his epic journey, helping to explain to visitors why nature reserves are so important for wild birds.
We expect the other cuckoos to follow Skybomb’s lead and head to Africa but just how far they will go once in that huge continent is still a question mark. We think Skybomb will head south and follow the seasonal rains in eastern Africa. His route so far is remarkably similar to that of another long-distance migrant – the Amur Falcon. The journeys of these birds are simply staggering.
Big thanks to the sponsors of this project – the Zoological Society of London, the Oriental Bird Club and the British Birds Charitable Foundation – and to the partners, especially the Beijing Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre, the China Birdwatching Society and the British Trust for Ornithology.
Don’t forget, you can follow the latest updates about the cuckoos on the special Beijing Cuckoo Project page.