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Report number 205 from Kvismare Bird Observatory:

Solar heating may explain extreme diel flight altitude changes in migration birds

Sjöberg S, Andersson A, Bäckman J, Hansson B, Malmiga G, Tarka M, Hasselquist D, Lindström Å & Alerstam T
Article in journal
Current Biology. 2023. Volume 33, page(s) 4232-4237.

Great reed warblers, Acrocephalus arundinaceus, and great snipes, Gallinago media, exhibit a diel cycle in flight altitudes—flying much higher during the day than the night—when performing migratory flights covering both night and day. One hypothesis proposed to explain this behavior is that the birds face additional heating by solar radiation during daytime and hence must climb to very high, and thus also very cold, altitudes to avoid overheating during daytime flights. Yet, solar heat gain in birds has been shown to drastically decrease with wind speed, and the quantitative heating effect by solar radiation on a bird flying with an airspeed of 10 m/s or more is unknown. We analyzed temperature data from multisensor data loggers (MDLs) placed without direct exposure to solar radiation on great reed warblers (the logger covered by feathers on the back) and great snipes (the logger on the leg, covered from the sun by the tail). We found that logger temperatures were significantly higher (5.9°C–8.8°C in great reed warblers and 4.8°C–5.4°C in great snipes) during the day than during the night in birds flying at the same altitudes (and thus also the same expected ambient air temperatures). These results strongly indicate that the heat balance of the flying birds is indeed affected by solar radiation, which is in accordance with the hypothesis that solar radiation is a key factor causing the remarkable diel cycles in flight altitude observed in these two long-distance migrant bird species.