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Bird Migration

Bird Migration Map

Flocks need frequent rest during their seasonal transcontinental flights. By understanding their routes and desired habitat, you can help your area become a familiar stop-over for migratory birds.

Each autumn, when 5 billion North American birds migrate south, some unusual varieties — as well as a few old friends — likely will show up in your yard, hungry and tired.

The tiny travelers may show up unannounced, but they're hardly ill-prepared for the long flight.

Birds do not just suddenly leave one day, explains Dr. Margaret Brittingham, a Pennsylvania State University professor of wildlife resources. As they prepare to fly hundreds or thousands of miles, they'll store energy. "Many small birds double their weight," Brittingham says. "They start to feed quite heavily and put on a lot of fat just prior to migration."

Change in day length triggers migration instincts, she says. "The specific day they leave is dependent on weather conditions," Brittingham says. Rain and fog, for example, might delay their departure. A cold front, however, could hasten migration, as the birds hitch a ride with the winds that accompany the front.

"That's the time to watch for big flights," she says.

Unless there is bad weather, migrating birds are selective and will search for a preferred habitat in which to rest. The time migrants spend at one particular site depends on the wind direction, weather and the availability of food, water and a landing space.

Cater to the Preferences of Birds on the Move:

  • Plant native evergreen and fruiting trees, shrubs, grasses and vines that will attract wildlife and provide shelter.
  • Keep your yard free of pesticides. Chemicals contaminate the water and the insects that birds eat.
  • Provide a birdbath if a natural water source is unavailable.
  • Provide food for birds.
  • Provide a safe space for your visitors:
    • Minimize the possibility of birds flying into windows by breaking up the reflection with a non-reflective window coating, window screens, flash tape and bird netting. Many birds cannot distinguish the real sky from a reflection in a window.
    • Keep pets contained

Migration Routes

Groups of birds migrating through the U.S. will generally stay within one of four routes depending on their point of departure. These routes are based on geographical obstacles like mountains, rivers and coasts. The primary North American routes are the Atlantic, Mississippi, Central and Pacific Flyways which end in Mexico, Central and South America, the Caribbean and other tropical destinations. Flying at an average altitude of 1525 feet above sea level, migrants travel varying distances: While Plovers migrate 2,400 miles each way in the U.S., Hudson Bay Blackpolls winter 5,000 miles away in Venezuela and some Terns fly up to 11,000 miles.

Atlantic Flyway

This route is used by ducks, swans, geese and cranes.

Mississippi Flyway

This route is used by ducks, geese, shorebirds, blackbirds, sparrows, warbler and thrushes.

Central Flyway

This route is used by Mallards, Geese, Mourning Doves and other ducks.

Pacific Flyway

This route is used by ducks and geese. The Yellow-billed Magpie and White-headed Woodpecker also migrate only in the Pacific region.

Don't worry that feeding birds will keep them around and disrupt their migration, Brittingham says. "That could happen with waterfowl but not with smaller birds."

Helping these winged wanderers might get you a special bonus; next year, the birds might return and bring a friend.