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Do Birds Stop and Rest During Migration?

Millions of birds migrate every year. They usually leave colder areas for warmer regions during the winter, especially in areas where food sources are higher. They’ll return to their breeding regions in the spring when the plants, fruits, and insects are in abundance. Birds can fly thousands of miles during migration, sometimes seeming like they don’t need to rest. So, do birds stop and rest during migration? Can they sleep while flying? Find answers to these questions and more about migrating birds.

Do birds stop and rest during migration?

Yes, most bird species will stop and rest after a long night of flying during migration. The places they stop are called “stopover sites” that have plenty of food, suitable shelter, and no predators around. They take the time to replenish their energy and fuel up for the next stage of their journey.

Migrating birds also face various dangers during their journey. They can be injured from predators, collisions into objects during flight, or natural disasters. Injured birds will usually stop to rest. Canadian geese (Branta canadensis) will often have other members of their flock accompany a bird that falls out of formation and lands due to injury.

Do migrating birds rest at night?

Not really, because most migratory birds do their flying at night! The nighttime is cooler so they can conserve more energy without heating up in the sun. Plus, the air is more stable without the sun to create thermal updrafts. This may make it easier to stay on course, especially for smaller birds. 

Position of the moon and stars aids in navigation, while hawks, cats and other predators are either not awake or less likely to spot them in the darkness. Night flying as a lot of advantages!

Even bird species that are normally active during the day will reverse their sleep patterns to stay awake at night during migration and rest during the day. However, for the bird species that stay at stopover sites for multiple days, you will see them resting at night while still on their migration route.

cranes migrating at night | Image by Lolame from Pixabay

How long do migrating birds rest?

Different bird species have different migration routes, habits, and stopover sites. For example, snow geese (Chen caerulescens) will migrate from Alaska and Canada to spend the winters in various parts of the U.S. to Mexico. Their stopover sites include rural areas or farmlands in Seattle and California. They will stop for up to 4 days at a time, especially after long stretches of flight.

In contrast, the blackpoll warbler (Setophaga striata) flies nonstop during their fall migration over the Atlantic Ocean from the northeastern coast of North America to South America. These birds will cover 1,500 to 2,200 miles over 2 or 3 days without rest. For a small bird that weighs less than half an ounce, they have tremendous endurance.

Do migratory birds sleep while flying?

Scientists monitoring the brains of great frigatebirds (Fregata minor) tried to figure out how they stay alert when spending weeks flying over the ocean searching for food. Turns out these large seabirds rest by taking short naps during flight. Scientists found they mostly rest half their brain at a time to keep one eye open to prevent collision while resting in the air.

However, sometimes they will even fly with both eyes closed, but this doesn’t impact their flight pattern. These birds sleep only around 42 minutes each day when flying, even though they can sleep for over 12 hours per day on land.

What bird stays in flight the longest?

The common swift (Apus apus) has one of the longest migrations among birds. They travel around 14,000 miles each year from the UK to Africa. Scientists found that most of these birds will fly nonstop for 10 months until they reach their destination. Sometimes younger birds will rest in trees or buildings when the weather is bad, however, their landings were only for short periods and they still spent 99.5 percent of the 10-month migration in the air.

The wandering albatross (Diomedea exulans) also has the capacity to stay in flight for a long time. These birds can travel almost 10,000 miles over the sea before reaching land. They also spend almost all of their first six years of life out at sea flying around. However, contrary to popular belief, they will land on the water to rest during these six years and aren’t flying nonstop for years.

Another notable species for long-flights is the bar-tailed godwit (Limosa lapponica). Scientists recorded they’ll fly nonstop without rest for 11 days, crossing a distance of 7,500 miles. These birds migrate from their breeding grounds in Alaska to New Zealand, with some making stops at sites in Australia.

What bird flies the farthest during migration?

Arctic tern | Image by Jonathan Cannon from Pixabay

Although not nonstop, the arctic tern is one of the birds that fly the farthest for their migration. They go from one end of the earth to the other every year, aka from the Arctic Circle to the Antarctic Circle. Although the trip is around 18,600 miles, the arctic tern doesn’t fly direct but instead zig zags over the ocean until they reach their destination making the trip even longer. When they need to rest, they’ll land on the water to feast on fish.

What bird migrates the fastest?

One of the birds with the fastest migration is the great snipe (Gallinago media). They fly between northern Europe and central Africa in only three and a half days. That’s 4,200 miles with an average speed of around 60 miles per hour!

What physical changes do birds make in order to prepare for migration?

Most birds will start eating more before their migration to gain body weight and reserves to prepare them for migration. For example, the blackpoll warbler will feed up on fruits and insects to nearly double their weight.

Some birds, such as shorebirds, will also molt new feathers that can withstand the rigors of long flights. When summer reaches an end and the days shorten, hormonal changes are triggered in their brain to initiate these physical changes or increased appetites.


Birds do stop and rest during migration to recharge their energy and find food before getting ready to fly again. While some species will make pitstops up to 4 days at a time, there are some endurance fliers that make their journey nonstop. And yes, there are even species that can take a nap while in midair.