8 Amazing Facts About Migratory Birds

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Fall Is the Ideal Time to Spot

Migratory Birds

If you’re a bird enthusiast, then you know the big event this time of year is spying migratory birds as they pass through.

In North America, most avian species migrate to some extent, with more than 350 species traveling to the tropics each fall.

And October is the perfect time to spot these winged travelers as they fly overhead or stop by our area for a brief respite on their long journey. To get you in the mood, here are eight amazing facts about these equally amazing creatures:

#1. About 40% of the World’s Birds Migrate

That’s at least 4,000 different known species that are migratory birds. And this number is likely to increase as scientists learn more about the habits of birds in tropical regions.

Bird migration has been recorded throughout history, with the earliest records being made about 3,000 years ago by the Ancient Greeks, including Homer and Aristotle. It’s also mentioned in the biblical Book of Job.

#2. The Bar-Headed Goose Is the Highest-Flying Migratory Bird on the Planet

This amazing creature regularly reaching altitudes of up to five and a half miles above sea level! Because it’s native to central Asia, you may think it has to reach such heights in order to clear the Himalaya Mountains on its migrating path.

But according to bird physiologists and naturalists, there are lower-altitude passes through the Himalayas which are used by other migratory bird species. No doubt there is a good explanation for why the bar-headed goose flies to such extreme altitudes. But for now, scientists are baffled.

#3. The Arctic Tern Has the Longest Migration of Any Animal

These black-capped, red-billed birds can fly more than 50,000 miles in a single year. It flies from its Arctic breeding grounds to the Antarctic and back again each year. The shortest distance between these areas is about 12,000 miles.

With the arctic tern’s long journey, it experiences two summers per year. It also sees more daylight than any other creature on the planet. Over its lifespan of more than 30 years, the tern’s flights add up to the equivalent of three trips to the moon and back.

Check out this extraordinary footage of the arctic tern in flight:




#4. Proportional to Its Size, the Northern Wheatear Travels Even Farther

The northern wheetear is a tiny bird, weighing less than an ounce, on average. But every year this little guy travels up to 9,000 miles each way between the Arctic and Africa. It has one of the largest ranges of any songbird.

Northern wheatears breed throughout northern Eurasia, as well as both the northeast and northwest coasts of North America. So why do we not see them in the winter, along with snow buntings, tree sparrows, and snowy owls? Because virtually all of the world’s northern wheatears spend the winter in the same region of sub-Saharan Africa.

#5. The Award for the Fastest Migratory Bird Goes to…

…the great snipe. This small, stocky wading bird typically flies around 4,200 miles at speeds of up to 60mph! No other animal travels at such speeds for such long distances.

While most birds utilize tailwinds to increase their speed, researchers have found little evidence of wind assistance for snipes. In fact, their wings lack pointed tips and are not especially aerodynamic.

Some snipes have been recorded to fly non-stop for 84 hours over 4,200 miles. They typically do not stop to feed despite having opportunities. Instead, they rely on stores of fat.

#6. But the Bar-Tailed Godwit Wins the Endurance Test

This Alaskan shorebird makes its eight-day, 7000-mile autumn migration from Alaska to New Zealand in one step, with no stopovers to rest or refuel. That’s the longest recorded non-stop flight of any migratory bird.

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#7. Some Species Double Their Body Weight

To prepare for the extremely taxing effort of migration, birds enter a state called “hyperphagia.” They massively store fat, which they’ll later use for energy on their long journeys. Some species, like the blackpoll warbler and our friend the northern wheatear, essentially double their normal body weight prior to migration.

If these birds were human, with the rate and extent of fattening, they’d be classified as dangerously obese and with type 2 diabetes.

#8. Many Migratory Birds Fly at Night

Why? Three reasons:

  1. Colder air temperatures reduce the danger of overheating. A migrating bird produces a huge amount of excess heat that needs to be released (mainly through its unfeathered legs).
  2. Equally important, dark skies tend to hold fewer predators.
  3. In addition, atmospheric air is usually less turbulent at night than during the day.

The majority of land birds migrate at night.  These include cuckoos, flycatchers, warblers, vireos, thrushes, orioles and sparrows.  Most of these birds inhabit woods and other sheltered habitat.  They’re not extremely agile fliers, and need dense habitat to avoid predators.


National Audubon Society

Science Direct

National Center for Biotechnical Information

Cornell Lab of Ornithology

PLOS Biology

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