Founder of the research consortium Global Flyway Network, Professor Theunis Piersma is the Rudi Drent Chair in Global Flyway Ecology at the University of Groningen. A contributor to more than 500 scientific publications, in 2014 he received the highest scientific award in the Netherlands, the Spinoza Prize. 


“Migratory birds like godwits are voices of a living planet but with the numbers of many populations falling rapidly, they require voices for a living planet”

One of the engrossing traits of birds is their capacity to fly far and long. In fact, some species connect Earthly hemispheres in both north-south and east-west directions. The migrant birds do this for very good ecological reasons. If we understand these reasons well enough, their seasonal movements and local whereabouts are chock-full of surprising and important information on the state of the habitats that they visit in sequence, habitats that we share with them as humans, or that play crucial roles in maintaining a liveable ecosphere. 

Take bar-tailed godwits, long-beaked and long-legged shorebirds, breeding on tundra in the High Arctic. Bar-tailed godwits range from northern Scandinavia in the west to Alaska in the east. The various populations along this longitudinal axis spend the nonbreeding seasons, i.e. most of the year, along coastlines up to 10,000km further south. In these tidal environments they specialise in catching worms and other marine invertebrates during low tide, doubling daily food intake to be very fat, and sufficiently fuelled up, for their nonstop flights in either northward or southward directions. 

Perhaps you are thinking, “this was a lot of biological detail for a general message.” Yes, and that is the point. Because we now understand bar-tailed godwits so well, we can greet them as sentinels, as Earth-observers, of connected habitats even in areas pretty much inaccessible to humans. We can do this if we equip them with tiny satellite-transmitters yielding real-time information on their whereabouts. 

In this way we discovered that certain bar-tailed godwits schedule their 12,000km nonstop flights from Alaska (where they breed) to New Zealand (where they winter) in ways that superbly account for the low pressure systems across both the northern and southern Pacific Ocean, demonstrating teleconnections that climatologists were not aware of. 

In their flight, these birds have also indicated the ecological value of offshore intertidal areas along the Chinese coast, which, as a result, are now considered to be World Heritage areas rather than turned into industrial land. And, with their movements over vast swathes of Eurasian tundra and taiga, some of the most inaccessible parts of the globe that are warming the fastest with large areas burning now, the godwits give us information that satellite technology cannot: spatial information on the ways that the insects of the tundra, key food for the birds, are able to fast-forward their adult-state emergences in summer. In similar ways, the birds’ movements, and the timing of being present somewhere (or not), signal the ecological state of coastal areas. 

What has become clear is that the tracking of individual migratory birds can now be developed as voices of a living planet! But this coin has another side: with the numbers of many populations of migratory (shore-)birds falling rapidly, bowing to their own grace and value as unique living organisms, they require voices for a living planet. Beyond being the harbingers of change, for good or bad, in local environments, the long-distance migrating shorebirds also offer the power to connect habitats, people and good ideas at global scales. 

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