You’re a mountain climber, and you have just scaled the highest peak in the world, Mount Everest. The air is so thin here you need an oxygen tank to breathe. You look out over the panorama beneath you and realize that no living creature, under its own power, can be higher than you are at this moment. But suddenly you hear a honking, and a flock of bar-headed geese fly over your head on their annual migration.
What? There are birds flying over Mount Everest? It’s true. An ordinary-looking goose lays claim to the title “Highest-Flying Animal.” This tenacious bird actually migrates over the Himalayan mountains! They carry no food or water, no extra oxygen, no winter survival gear—yet there they are, higher than any creature should be.
The dapper bar-headed goose (Anser indicus) is a migratory bird that breeds in Central Asia (southeast Russia and western China) but travels to India and northern Burma for the winter.
It navigates the air over the Himalayas at 30,000 to 33,000 feet (5.7 to 6.25 miles). The oxygen concentration at this height is a little more than one-quarter that of sea level—not enough for kerosene lanterns to burn, helicopters to hover, or people to breathe. Yet this goose remains fully conscious and faithfully flies over the Himalayas twice each year, a journey which takes just hours. (An ascent of Mt. Everest usually takes a climber days or weeks, depending upon weather.)
The anatomy of the bar-headed goose includes larger-than-normal wings, lungs that inhale greater-than-normal amounts of air, and blood containing a special type of hemoglobin that carries higher-than-normal levels of oxygen to its tissues and organs.
This bird was also designed to produce a lot of heat when it flies. The constant radiation of body warmth and the goose’s down feathers prevent ice from forming on the bird’s wings, which would potentially ground it.
With a little help from tailwinds, the bar-headed geese make the trip from Tibet to India—more than 1,000 miles—in a single day. By using tailwinds, the geese capitalize on weather that would pulverize lesser creatures. These geese are powerful flappers with huge wings that are pointed to reduce wind resistance. They can fly over 50 miles an hour on their own power, and they really move if they can add the thrust of 100-mile-per-hour tailwinds. Able to gauge and correct for drift, bar-headed geese can even fly in crosswinds without being blown off course.
Why don’t they just fly around the mountains or snake their way through using river valleys, like the majority of the other migratory birds in the Himal region? It’s hard to say from a biological perspective. Theologically, however, it’s another testimony to the marvelous works of God.
The Psalmist prayed, “I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made” (139:14). He could have added, “I praise you because the bar-headed goose is fearfully and wonderfully made.” He did say that, sort of: “Your works are wonderful, I know that full well.”
Rick Destree is director of His Creation.
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