Researchers that want to study migrating birds have problems gathering data on what birds eat, when or if they have pit stops, and the effect of the weather. One solution to this problem was to build a $1.5 million wind tunnel to study a captive bird’s metabolism and flight. Researchers can adjust temperature, humidity and barometric pressure and study the effect on birds.
How to get birds to work with you in wind tunnels
From an interview with Science's Elizabeth Pennisi:
“A year old, the tunnel presents researchers with an unprecedented opportunity to probe the mysteries of migration in exquisite detail. But money can't buy birds that are keen to fly in a wind tunnel, and the team has had mixed success finding willing avian partners. An early project using starlings did well, despite taking place when the tunnel was not quite finished. It netted "Super," a bird that always cooperates and will even fly into the wind tunnel on its own accord. But a study involving robins took months to identify five somewhat cooperative fliers; switching to Swainson's thrushes worked better. One immunological project involving a shorebird called a ruff is stranded because the birds show no inclination to take to the air. And the researchers have just started testing warblers to see if high-protein or high-carbohydrate diets make a difference in energy use during flight.”
Some early test results from biologists at the University of Western Ontario in Canada discovered that the birds on long migrations conserve water by burning muscle and organs instead of fat.
The protein in muscle doesn't provide as much energy as fat, but it can release five times as much water - enough to keep birds going during their nightlong flights, according to a study published Friday in the journal Science.
Scientists believe that understanding how birds use protein during migration could help them better understand the environmental challenges facing animals that migrate.