When Do Birds Migrate?

Migration is one of the many wonders of the animal world. Migration is defined as the seasonal movement from one region or area to another. Many different types of animals migrate, however migration is most famously associated with birds. Bird species of all types and sizes make migrations, some covering thousands of miles and even spanning continents. But when do birds migrate each year? 

There are two main timeframes for migration: fall and spring. If you live in North America, you may have seen some of these mass migrations. Many people recognize (by sight and sound!) the V-formation of geese flying north or south, depending on the season. 

It truly is a wonder how birds know when to begin their migrations. In this article, we will cover some of the cues that let birds know it is time to migrate and when these migrations tend to happen.

When do birds migrate?

As mentioned before, there are two main times of year when birds will make their migrations: fall and spring. Typically, birds will head south during the fall for the winter and north during the warmer spring months. Depending on the species, some birds will do their flights at night while others fly through the day. Some birds will fly through both the day and the night!

Fall

When temperatures start to cool down, many species of birds will gear up for a long trip down to where its warmer and travel south. During the winter, it can be very difficult for birds to find food and keep warm, so that is why birds will make the trip before winter arrives. Not all birds migrate though, in Northern North America there are several species that are well adapted for the cooler temps. These birds may have fluffy down winter feathers to keep warm. 

It’s difficult to give a definitive time frame of when the migration south for the winter starts because fall starts a lot earlier up in cooler climates in the north. In places like Alaska or Canada, birds may start their fall migrations as early as late July-early August. States that are south of Canada and Alaska may start to see migrations anywhere between August and October at the latest. 

Drops in temperature, changes in daylight hours, and the fact that there is less food available sends the signal for birds to start their migrations. The instinct to migrate is also partially ingrained in the genetic makeup of migratory birds.

Spring

With the coming of warm spring temps, many birds will start their long journey back up north where temperatures are mild and pleasant for the summer months. Birds that travel south during the fall partly do so to escape colder temps and get to an area where there is ample food to eat, so once things warm up again they are able to return.

Just as there are some species of birds that are native, year-round residents in northern climates, there are some species that are native residents to warmer climates in the south do not migrate during the spring.

In southern climates where temperatures are hotter, birds typically start to make their trip back up north earlier than those that have traveled to more central or mild climates. These trips back north may start as early as early March through May. 

Environmental cues like temperatures rising and daylight hours getting longer let birds know that it is time to make the trip up north. 

Why do birds migrate?

In the animal world, most behavior can be explained by motivators such as food and the instinctual drive to pass on ones’ genes through breeding. Bird migration is no different and is very much dependent on these two underlying motivators. 

Food

For birds that are typically residents in cooler northern climates, food can become very scarce during the winter months. Typically, birds that eat nectar or insects can’t find the food they need once winter comes and need to travel south where insects to eat and plants to drink nectar from are abundant. 

Then, when temperatures begin to rise, insect populations begin to boom up north, just in time for migratory birds to come back to feast. Warmer temperatures in the summer also means that plants will be flowering which is important for birds that depend on nectar for a food source.

Breeding

Passing on your genes through breeding and reproduction is absolutely an instinct in the animal world. Breeding requires resources- like food for energy and places to nest with optimal conditions. Most commonly, birds will migrate up north during the spring to breed. In the spring, things begin to heat up and food sources are more abundant. This is essential to make sure birds are healthy and fit enough to breed.

This also means that there will be plenty of food to feed hatchlings once the baby birds emerge from their nest. In northern regions, the daylight hours are longer in the summertime and therefore gives the parents more time to forage for food and feed their babies. 

How long does bird migration take?

How long it takes for birds to get from point a to point b during migration varies between species. Some species may be able to fly longer and faster, making the time it takes shorter. Additionally, some birds may not need to travel as far, cutting migration times. 

Here’s a few examples of some migratory birds that you may recognize:

  • Snowy Owl: Most owls do not migrate, but Snowy Owls will make seasonal migrations where they fly south from northern Canada to spend their winters in the northern United states. Not much is known about Snowy Owl migration, but scientists think that Snowy Owls may travel up to 900+ miles (one way) though migration rates are not known. 
  • Canada Goose: Canadian Geese are capable of flying incredible distances in a single day- up to 1,500 miles if the conditions are right. Canadian Geese migrations are 2,000-3,000 miles (one way) and may only take a few days.
  • American Robin: American Robins are considered “slow migrants” and typically make a 3,000 mile journey (one way) over the course of 12 weeks. 
  • Peregrine Falcon: Not all Peregrine Falcons migrate, but those that do can cover incredible distances. Peregrine Falcons migrate up to 8,000 miles (one way) over the course of 9-10 weeks. Here are some more interesting facts about Peregrine Falcons
  • Ruby-throated Hummingbird: For as tiny as they are, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds can travel huge distances. Ruby-throated Hummingbirds may migrate over 1,200 miles over (one way) the course of 1-4 weeks. 

Bird migration FAQ’s?

Do birds stop for breaks while migrating?

Yes, during migration birds will take a break at “stopover” sites. Stopover sites allow for birds to rest, eat and prepare for the next leg of the journey. 

How do birds migrate without getting lost?

Birds, like many other types of animals have special sensory abilities that help them navigate. Birds may navigate using magnetic fields, tracking the position of the sun, or even using stars to find their way during migration.

Do birds ever get lost?

In the right conditions, birds will make it to their destination with no problem. However, if birds run into bad weather or a storm they can be blown off course, which typically does not end well for them. 

How do birds find their way back to the same place?

Once birds start to get close to home, they use visual cues and familiar scents to make sure they’re on the right track. Animals uses their senses much differently to humans and almost use them to create maps in their head.

Do hummingbirds come back to the same place each year?

Yes, hummingbirds have been known to return to the same hummingbird feeders in people’s yards year after year. 

Why do some birds not migrate?

Some birds may not migrate because they don’t have to. Some birds in cooler climates have adapted to stick it out through the winter by eating what’s available to them, like insects that live under the bark of trees. They will also fatten up on protein rich seeds. So be sure to feed the bird at your feeders plenty of suet in the winter time!

Do little birds migrate?

Yes, birds of all sizes migrate. Even Hummingbirds migrate, which are some of the smallest birds in the world!

Do any birds fly north for the winter?

Typically, birds fly south for the winter. However, birds living in the southern hemisphere where seasons are essentially flipped may fly north to get to warmer temperature in for the winter months,

Do only birds that fly migrate?

No, being able to fly is not a requirement for migration. Birds like Emus and Penguins migrate on foot or by swimming. 

Conclusion

It’s no doubt that birds are able to do some pretty incredible things that seem to defy all logic. For example, by just looking at a Hummingbird you would never imagine that they would be capable of traveling hundreds of miles in just a short span of time! Migration is crucial to the survival of many species of birds and there is still so much to learn. 

About Jesse

Jesse enjoys bird watching and feeding birds in his backyard, learning about the different species, and sharing his knowledge and experiences.

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