Background:Many avian species soar and glide over land. Evidence from large birds (mb.0.9 kg) suggests that soaring-gliding is considerably cheaper in terms of energy than flapping flight, and costs about two to three times the basal metabolic rate (BMR). Yet, soaring-gliding is considered unfavorable for small birds because migration speed in small birds during soaring-gliding is believed to be lower than that of flapping flight. Nevertheless, several small bird species routinely soar and glide. Methodology/Principal Findings:To estimate the energetic cost of soaring-gliding flight in small birds, we measured heart beat frequencies of free-ranging migrating European bee-eaters (Merops apiaster, mb,55 g) using radio telemetry, and established the relationship between heart beat frequency and metabolic rate (by indirect calorimetry) in the laboratory. Heart beat frequency during sustained soaring-gliding was 2.2 to 2.5 times lower than during flapping flight, but similar to, and not significantly different from, that measured in resting birds. We estimated that soaring-gliding metabolic rate of European bee-eaters is about twice their basal metabolic rate (BMR), which is similar to the value estimated in the black-browed albatross Thalassarche (previously Diomedea) melanophrys, mb,4 kg). We found that soaring-gliding migration speed is not significantly different from flapping migration speed. Conclusions/Significance:We found no evidence that soaring-gliding speed is slower than flapping flight in bee-eaters, contradicting earlier estimates that implied a migration speed penalty for using soaring-gliding rather than flapping flight. Moreover, we suggest that small birds soar and glide during migration, breeding, dispersal, and other stages in their annual cycle because it may entail a low energy cost of transport. We propose that the energy cost of soaring-gliding may be proportional to BMR regardless of bird size, as theoretically deduced by earlier studies.
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