U of A researchers track enigmatic nighthawks from Alberta to Brazil

Nighthawks — they're small birds but they pack a lot of horsepower.

20,000-kilometre, round-trip journey is as far as most people drive their cars in a year

Biologist Elly Knight holds a nighthawk. Researchers at the University of Alberta are part of a team that tracked the mysterious birds from their breeding grounds north of Fort McMurray all the way down to Brazil. (Jonathan DeMoor)

Nighthawks — they're small birds but they pack a lot of horsepower.

The birds, which summer north of Fort McMurray, are frequent flyers that rack-up a lot of air miles, shows a new study published in the Canadian Journal of Zoology shows 

Researchers from the University of Alberta and the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Centre attached GPS backpacks on 10 of the birds.

The found nighthawks fly 10,000 kilometres each year to the Amazon rainforest and tropical savannahs in Brazil where they winter before returning to northern Alberta.

The birds navigate so well they return to their breeding grounds within a single kilometre from where they left.

University of Alberta PhD researcher Elly Knight said she was surprised by the data.

"People drive about 20,000 kilometres a year in a car. And that's gasoline fuelled. But these birds are bug fuelled," Knight said.

Researcher Janet Ng examines a nighthawk. (Elly Knight)

Little is known about the habits of these nocturnal animals or their migration routes, she said.

The new information is crucial to understanding what's causing the decline of the threatened species whose populations have collapsed by 80 per cent since the 1950s, Knight said.

"Starting to understand where this species goes, which migration route they go through and where they are wintering is really important," Knight said. "We need to understand what environmental conditions they face."