May 24 (UPI) -- A new study of young birds' migration from Europe to Africa showed the final destination of each juvenile was dependent on wind conditions.
Because satellite tracking technology doesn't come cheap, scientists are reluctant to attach their equipment to young birds. Many juveniles don't survive their inaugural migration.
"Until now, most people studied adult birds because they have a higher chance of survival," Wouter Vansteelant, a researcher at the University of Amsterdam, said in a news release.
Vansteelant and his colleagues decided to take a chance on 31 young honey buzzards born in Finland. Of the 31 tagged buzzards, 27 ended up traveling south for the winter. Only three perished along the way.
"Twenty-four of these birds survived their first migration, ending up as far west as Mali and as far east as the Congo," Vansteelant said.
The east-west spread of the migratory endpoints measured 2,050 miles.
When researchers compared migratory paths and regional wind conditions, they found the route of each bird was dictated by the weather. The findings -- detailed in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B -- suggest wind and weather, not genetics, determine where birds travel for winter for the rest of their lives.
"We suspect this strategy is very common among migrant birds, and probably developed at a time when plenty of suitable wintering habitats were available across the whole breadth of tropical Africa," Vansteelant said.
If such a wintering strategy is to remain viable in the face of climate change and deforestation, researchers say conservationists must ensure an even distribution of suitable habitat.
"If we want to conserve European breeding populations of migrant landbirds, we should focus on measures that will ensure preservation of suitable landscapes for these birds across many developing sub-Saharan countries rather than the creation of a couple of scattered reserves," said Vansteelant.