A 30,000-km journey by Apus apus pekinensis tracks arid lands between northern China and south-western Africa

Yanyan Zhao, Xinru Zhao, Lan Wu, Tong Mu, Fang Yu, Lyndon Kearsley, Xuan Liang, Jianping Fu, Xiaoru Hou, Peng Peng, Xiaoyang Li, Tao Zhang, Su Yan, Dick Newell, Chris M. Hewson, Terry Townshend, Susanne Åkesson, Yang Liu

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Background: As a widely distributed and aerial migratory bird, the Common Swift (Apus apus) flies over a wide geographic range in Eurasia and Africa during migration. Although some studies have revealed the migration routes and phenology of European populations, A. a. apus (from hereon the nominate apus), the route used by its East Asian counterpart A. a. pekinensis (from hereon pekinensis) remained a mystery. Methods: Using light level geolocators, we studied the migration of adult pekinensis breeding in Beijing from 2014 to 2018, and analysed full annual tracks obtained from 25 individuals. In addition, we used the mean monthly precipitation to assess the seasonal variations in humidity for the distribution ranges of the nominate apus and pekinensis. This environmental variable is considered to be critically relevant to their migratory phenology and food resource abundance. Results: Our results show that the swifts perform a round-trip journey of ca 30,000 km each year, representing a detour of 26% in autumn and 15% in spring compared to the shortest route between the breeding site in Beijing and wintering areas in semi-arid south-western Africa. Compared to the nominate apus, pekinensis experiences drier conditions for longer periods of time. Remarkably, individuals from our study population tracked arid habitat along the entire migration corridor leading from a breeding site in Beijing to at least central Africa. In Africa, they explored more arid habitats during non-breeding than the nominate apus. Conclusions: The migration route followed by pekinensis breeding in Beijing might suggest an adaptation to semi-arid habitat and dry climatic zones during non-breeding periods, and provides a piece of correlative evidence indicating the historical range expansion of the subspecies. This study highlights that the Common Swift may prove invaluable as a model species for studies of migration route formation and population divergence.

Original languageEnglish
Article number29
JournalMovement Ecology
Publication statusPublished - 2022 Dec

Subject classification (UKÄ)

  • Zoology
  • Ecology

Free keywords

  • Common Swift
  • East Asia
  • Light-level geolocator
  • Migration
  • Population divergence


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