Migration of Birds

Influence of Weather

It is thought by some that the weather has little to do with the time of arrival of migratory birds. It is assumed that if the bird is physiologically prepared for migration it departs, irrespective of the weather. Even if this were the case, weather can influence the progress of migration by not only controlling the advance of the seasons but also by helping, hindering, or even stopping bird flight (Welty 1962).

 Some scientists believe that birds not only avoid bad weather at the start of a journey but usually finish the journey in good weather (Nesbit and Drury 1967b). Contrary to what many observers believe the arrival of birds in an area, whether they stop or continue on, is more often controlled by the weather at the point of departure than at the point of arrival. During the peak of migration, suitable weather may occur at an observation site, but strong migratory movements may be arrested before the birds arrive there because the weather was not suitable at the point of departure or somewhere in between. In addition, if there is good weather at the point of departure as well as farther down the migration route, the migrants, once air-borne in a favorable weather pattern, may continue on right over an expectant observer and the whole flight will be missed. Nesbet and Drury's (1967b) radar study on air-ground comparisons found, with few exceptions, ground observers missed the largest movements observed on radar. Observation of a large wave of arrivals indicated migrants had been stopped by a meteorological barrier, and people were actually not reporting maximum migration but an interruption to migration. Therefore, when migration is proceeding normally under safe conditions, very little movement is visible to the ground observer but a large arrival of birds on the ground often indicates something is not in order and the migrants have been forced to stop for one reason or another.

 The question is frequently asked: "How can I identify weather conditions suitable or unsuitable for migration?" It is almost impossible to discuss separately the effects of different weather factors on migration because barometric pressure, temperature, wind, and other meteorological phenomena are very closely related.

 On the North American continent, air masses generally proceed about 600 miles per day from the west to the east. These air masses vary in pressure, temperature, humidity, and wind. The wind within these masses travels in either a clockwise (anticyclonic) or counterclockwise (cyclonic) direction. Cyclonic air masses contain relatively moist warm air with low barometric pressure centers and are designated "lows"; anticyclonic air masses are characterized by dry cool air with high barometric pressure areas and are called "highs." Where these air masses meet, a "front" is formed, and the rapidity with which this front moves through an area depends on the temperature and pressure gradient on either side of the front.

 An understanding of frontal systems, with their associated wind, temperature and humidity, is one of the keys to understanding when birds migrate. You must not only watch the fronts in your area but the progress of nearby air masses as well because the birds migrating through your area have started their journey to the north or south of you depending on the season. The weather conditions at point of departure will dictate if and when birds will be passing through your area in the near future.

 During fall migration, the best passage of migrants usually occurs 2 days after a cold front has gone through. That is, the low has passed and it is being followed by a high characterized by dropping temperatures, a rising barometer, and clearing skies. The 24 hours just after a low has passed are not always conducive to a good passage of birds because winds are often too strong and turbulent in the trough between the two air masses. Hochbaum (1955) correlated mass movements of ducks through the prairies with weather systems and noted the combination of weather conditions described above was ideal for mass migrations of ducks during November. During this period, observers at Delta, Manitoba, south to Louisiana recorded a tremendous flight of ducks as the proper conditions of barometric pressure, temperature, wind, and cloud cover passed across the central United States and Canada. An example of the type of weather system that is often associated with mass movements is illustrated in Fig. 12.

GIF - Hypothetical weather system
Figure 12. A hypothetical weather system that could be ideal for mass migrations waterfowl in the fall. The strong southerly flow of air created by counter-clockwise winds about the lows and the clockwise rotation of air about the highs, aids the rap movement of waterfowl from their breeding grounds in the Canadian prairies wintering areas in southern United States. 

Records of lapwings on Newfoundland and the Gulf of St. Lawrence appear to be the result of a particular series of meteorological events (Bagg 1967). The lapwing is a European species rarely found in the New World. If cold air moves into western Europe from the east, lapwings move westward into England, Wales and Ireland. Occasionally, the development of an anomalous weather pattern over the North Atlantic including an elongated low from Europe to eastern Canada causes some birds to be literally "blown" in the counter-clockwise airstream across the Atlantic to the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

 During spring migration, weather conditions conducive to strong movements of birds are somewhat the opposite from those in the fall. Migrants will move north on the warm sector of an incoming low. When a high pressure area has just passed, the influx of warm moist tropical air is extended and intensified (Bagg et al. 1950). However, during this time, cloudiness and rain associated with the low may curtail migration or squeeze it into a narrow period proceeding along the warm front. If a fast moving cold front approaches from the northwest, the rapid movement of migrants will be sharply curtailed or even grounded until more favorable conditions occur.

 The incessant crescendo note of the ovenbird is ordinarily associated with the full verdure of May woods, but this bird has been known to reach its breeding grounds in a snowstorm, and the records of its arrival in southern Minnesota show a temperature variation from near freezing to full summer warmth. Temperatures at arrival of several other common birds vary from 14° between highest and lowest temperatures to 37°, the average variation being about 24°. North American species spending the winter months in tropical latitudes experience no marked changes in temperature conditions from November to March or April, yet frequently they will start the northward movement in January or February. This is in obedience to physiological promptings and has no relation to the prevailing weather conditions. For migratory birds the winter season is a period of rest, a time when they have no cares other than those associated with the daily search for food or escape from their natural enemies. Their migrations, however, are a vital part of their life cycles, which have become so well adjusted that the seasons of travel correspond in general with the major seasonal changes on their breeding grounds. With the approach of spring, therefore, the reproductive impulse awakens, and each individual bird is irresistibly impelled to start the journey that ends in its summer home.

 In other words, the evidence indicates the urge to migrate is so innate within a species or population that the individuals move north in spring when the average weather is not unendurable. The word "average" must be emphasized since it appears the migrations of birds have evolved in synchrony with average climatic conditions. More northern nesting populations of species such as American robins and Savannah sparrows, timed to arrive on their breeding ground when the weather is suitable, pass through areas where their more southern kin are already nesting. The hardy species travel early, fearless of the blasts of retreating winter, while the more delicate kinds come later when there is less danger of encountering prolonged periods of inclement weather. Some of the hardy birds pause in favorable areas and allow the spring season to advance. Then, by rapid travel they again overtake it, or, as sometimes happens, they actually outstrip it. Occasionally this results in some hardship, but rarely in the destruction of large numbers of individuals after arrival. Cases are known where early migrating bluebirds have been overwhelmed by late winter storms. Nevertheless, if such unfavorable conditions are not prolonged, no serious effect on the species is noted. The soundness of the bird's instincts is evidenced by the fact that natural catastrophes, great though they may be, do not permanently diminish the avian populations.

 The spring flight of migrants, if interrupted by cold north winds, is resumed when weather conditions again become favorable, and it is probable that all instances of arrival in stormy weather can be explained on the theory that the flight was begun while the weather was auspicious. Even though major movements of migrants in spring generally coincide with periods of warm weather and southerly winds, observations on the beginning of nocturnal spring flights from the coast of Louisiana failed to note any inhibiting factor other than hard rain (Gauthreaux 1971).

 Radar studies have indicated that migrant birds possess an amazing understanding of wind patterns (Bellrose 1967). Birds can recognize many characteristics and select for favorable patterns. Head winds are as unfavorable to migration as is rain or snow because they greatly increase the labor of flight and cut down the speed of cross-country travel. If such winds have a particularly high velocity, they may force down the weaker travelers, and when this happens over water, large numbers of birds are lost. Moderate tail winds and cross or quartering breezes appear to offer the best conditions for the flight of migrants. Richardson (1971) found migrants traveling in different directions at different altitudes, but each group of birds was aided by a following wind. Thus we might expect natural selection to operate in favor of those birds that could recognize and respond to favorable wind patterns because it would reduce energy consumption and flight time on long-distance flights (Hassler et al. 1963).

 Soaring birds such as hawks, vultures, and storks are very dependent on proper wind conditions for migration. In the fall, often the best day to observe hawk migration in the eastern United States is on the second day after a cold front has passed providing there are steady northwest to west winds and a sunny day for production of thermals (Pettingill1962). Considerable drifting may be observed in this group of birds because they are literally carried along by the wind or glide from one thermal to the next. Haugh and Cade (1966) found most hawks migrated around Lake Ontario when winds were 10 to 25 miles per hour, but, if the wind exceeded 35 miles per hour, most hawk migration stopped.

 In conclusion then, we can say that the weather may be the impetus for migration for many species, but it cannot stimulate a bird to migrate unless it is physiologically prepared. Arrivals on the ground are not necessarily indicative of the number of birds passing overhead. During the fall, peak migrations usually follow the passage of a cold front when the temperature is falling, the barometer is rising, winds are from the west or northwest, and the sky is clearing. In the spring, most migrants proceed north in the warm sector of a low when winds are southerly, warm, and moist, but rain, fog, or snow will often curtail the passage of migrants or prevent the initiation of a migration. Evolution of migratory behavior has probably resulted from the survival of birds capable of selecting those wind conditions, which reduce flight time and energy consumption, during their passage. 

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