Make your own free website on

Migration of Birds

Influence of Topography

The relation of the world's land masses to each other and the distribution and association of biotypes within these land masses influence the direction birds migrate. Topography may aid, hinder, or prevent the progress of a migrant depending on the bird's particular requirements. Old World migrants must contend with east-west tending mountain ranges and deserts, whereas New World travelers can proceed north and south across a landscape with its major mountain ranges and river systems oriented in the same direction as the birds migrate.

 When a distinct feature in the landscape, such as borders between fields and forests, rivers, mountain ridges, desert rims, or peninsulas, appears to influence migratory travel, we call these formations "guiding lines," "diversion-lines," "leading lines," or in German, "Leitlinie." It is an observed fact that some birds in a migratory movement alter their course to travel along a leading line, but whether this feature in the landscape caused the migrants to change their course is only theory (Thomson 1960). Besides topography, many other factors can influence this type of flight behavior including weather, wind speed and direction, time of day, species, age, and experience of the bird (Murray 1964).

 Large bodies of water constitute real barriers to soaring birds dependent on thermals and air currents. Good examples of these barriers include the Mediterranean Sea between Europe and Africa and the Great Lakes in North America. Because these water areas do not create good thermals (generally a warm surface, such as a large field on a sunny day, is needed to create the necessary rising air currents for thermals to form) for birds to soar on, migrants are forced to travel around them on updrafts created where land and water meet. The shoreline, then, may appear to be the guiding line, but more than likely the birds are simply following air currents created by onshore winds replacing the rising air from the surrounding warmer land surface and being deflected upward by the shoreline. These conditions often concentrate our buteos (broad-winged, rough-legged, red-shouldered, and red-tailed hawks) into restricted areas where, on good days, numbers observed can be spectacular. Similar conditions exist over the Bosphorus at the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea where literally thousands of storks, eagles, and buzzards can be observed on a good day.

 While extensive water areas may alter the migratory path of soaring birds, mountain ridges, especially if parallel to the line of flight, are often very conducive to migratory travel. Systematic coverage of the Appalachian ridges indicates all of them aid the migration of soaring birds. Apparently the highest and longest ridges deflect the horizontal winds upward better than the shorter ridges less than 1,000 feet high, and more birds are seen, on the average, along the higher ridges (Robbing 1956).

 In general, nocturnal migrants are not influenced by topography as much as diurnal travellers. Radar observations have played an important role in establishing this difference. Bellrose (1967) found that waterfowl migrating at night through the Midwest were not influenced by major river systems, but in the evening or after daybreak ducks and geese tended to alter their course along the rivers. Drury et al. (1961) recorded massive fall and spring movements from the New England area out over the Atlantic Ocean without any apparent regard for the coastline. Until nocturnal migration could be "watched" on a radar screen, many bird observers assumed the guiding effect of the coastline on migratory travel was more restrictive than it really is.

 In summary, topography may help or deter a migrant in its passage. It affects different birds in different ways. In North America, migratory movements are continent wide, and no evidence has indicated any particular part of the landscape influences all birds in the same manner. Certain bird populations may use general areas in migration, but they are usually not rigidly restricted to them because of topography. 

Previous Section -- Influence of Weather
Return to Contents
Next Section -- Perils of Migration