Hidden Long-Distance Movements by a Migratory Bird

  • September 15, 2020
  • by Nathan W. Cooper. Peter P. Marra


Technology has revolutionized our ability to track animals across the globe, significantly advancing our understanding of animal movement. Technological and logistical challenges, however, have led to non-migratory movements that fall outside of the territory/home range paradigm, receiving less attention. This may have resulted in a widespread underestimation of the frequency and spatial scale at which animals either move outside of their territories and home ranges or adopt altogether different space-use strategies. We used a breeding-range-wide automated radio-telemetry system to track movements in a migratory songbird, the Kirtland’s warbler (Setophaga kirtlandii). By attaching radio tags on the wintering grounds and relocating the same individuals on the breeding grounds, we were able to sample the population without regard to their eventual breeding status or space-use strategy. We found that a surprising proportion of breeders and most non-breeders made long-distance (5–77 km) movements during the breeding season while conspecifics remained within their small territories. Movement frequency peaked during the nestling and fledgling periods, indicating that both breeders and non-breeders were likely prospecting to inform dispersal. A literature review revealed that Kirtland’s warblers moved farther than most species in absolute distances and farther than all other species relative to normal daily movements. We argue that similarly long-distance movements likely exist in many other species but have gone undetected because of technological limitations, research biases, and logistical challenges. Underestimation of the scale of these poorly understood life history behaviors has important implications for the ecology, evolution, and conservation of animals.