Rare Scottish Bird Reveals Its Long-Secret Winter Home

Think you have a long commute? Well it's probably nothing compared to the red-necked phalarope's. NPR's Scott Simon talks to Malcie Smith of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds about their record-breaking migration and how scientists tracked the tiny birds.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Big aviation news this week: the red-necked phalarope is one of Scotland's rarest breeding birds and was thought to migrate to its winter grounds in the Arabian Sea. This past week, it was reported that a new tiny tracking device reveals that the phalarope actually flies across the Atlantic Ocean down to the Caribbean, all the way to South America. So, is the phalarope a Scottish bird or a South American one? Malcie Smith is from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and he joins us from Scotland. Thanks very much for being with us.

MALCIE SMITH: Hi. How you doing?

SIMON: Fine, thank you. Well, I haven't been flying for, what is it, 16,000 miles or whatever.

(LAUGHTER)

SMITH: Yeah. We like to think of it as being a Scottish bird but, of course, they're only here for about, well, two, three months of the year. Most of the year they're out at sea and turns out they're actually close to the States than they are to the U.K.

SIMON: So, why didn't we know this until now?

SMITH: Well, it's a really hard thing to try and discover, to be honest. Only recently this technology's become available that enables us to find out in some detail where these birds are going.

SIMON: It's a small bird, having seen some pictures.

SMITH: Yeah.

SIMON: To my knowledge, I've never seen a phalarope, so how small is the tracking device?

SMITH: Oh, it's tiny. It's only .6 of a gram, so it's about 11 millimeters square and wafer-thin. So, it's a really tiny, little device.

SIMON: And how's it work?

SMITH: It's fitted with a battery and a light stalk. Now, this records sunset and sunrise and day (unintelligible). And, as any 18th century navigator will tell you, that all you need to know to work out roughly what your latitude and longitude is.

SIMON: I'm told these birds are - how do I put this - well, they're kind of like penguins in the way they arrange their society and parental responsibilities.

SMITH: Yes. Their breeding behavior is pretty unusual. They display what we call reversed sexual role, where the male is a quite a small, dowdy little bird; the female's much bigger, much brighter, much bolder, and more aggressive. When they pair up for a short time during the breeding season and the female lays her four eggs, she leaves the male to do all the incubating and all the care of the chicks while she goes off to look for another mate.

SIMON: This is not a happy love story, is it?

SMITH: Well, not as far as he's concerned. But it does mean that Mrs. Phalarope can go off and get two broods of chicks off in one short breeding season.

SIMON: Well, I guess we should say good for her.

SMITH: Absolutely.

SIMON: Malcie Smith of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. Mr. Smith, I've learned a lot. Thanks very much.

SMITH: You're very welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

EELS: (Singing) 'Cause I like birds. If you're small and on a search, I've got a (unintelligible) for your to perch on...

SIMON: And this is NPR News.

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