Migration of Birds

When Birds Migrate

One ordinarily thinks of the world of birds as sedentary during two periods each year, at nesting time, and in winter. For individuals this is obviously the case, but when the entire avifauna of North America or the world is considered, it is found that at almost all periods there are some latitudinal movements of birds. A few of these movements reoccur year after year with calendar-like regularity. Each species, or group of species, migrates at a particular time of the year and some at a particular time of the day. In this section some of the interesting differences will be discussed as to when birds migrate.

Time of Year
Some species begin their fall migrations early in July, and in other species distinct southward movements can be detected late into the winter. While some migrants are still traveling south, some early spring migrants can be observed returning north through the same locality. For example, many shorebirds start south in the early part of July, while the goshawks, snowy owls, redpolls, and Bohemian waxwings do not leave the North until forced to do so by the advent of severe winter weather or a lack of customary food. Thus an observer in the northern part of the United States may record an almost unbroken southward procession of birds from midsummer to winter and note some of the returning migrants as early as the middle of February. While on their way north, purple martins have been known to arrive in Florida late in January, and, among late migrants, the northern movement may continue well into June. In some species the migration is so prolonged that the first arrivals in the southern part of the breeding range will have performed their parental duties and may actually start south while others of the species are still on their way north.

GIF - B-a-w warbler Summer and winter homes
Figure 1. Summer and winter homes of the black-and-white warbler. A very slow migrant, these birds nesting in the northern part of the country take 50 days to cross the breeding range. The speed of migration is shown in Fig. 2. crossing the United States.

A study of these facts indicates the existence of northern and southern populations of the same species that have quite different migration schedules. In fall, migratory populations that nest farthest south migrate first to the winter range because they finish nesting first. For example, the breeding range of the black-and-white warbler covers much of the eastern United States and southern Canada northwest through the prairies to Great Bear Lake in Canada (Fig. 1). It spends the winter in southern Florida, the West Indies, southern and eastern Mexico, Central America, and northwestern South America. In the southern part of its breeding range, it nests in April, but those summering in New Brunswick do not reach their nesting grounds before the middle of May. (Lines that connect points where birds arrive at the same line are called isochronal lines. Fig. 2) Therefore, if 50 days are required to cross the breeding range, and if 60 days are allowed for reproductive activities and molting, they would not be ready to start southward before the middle of July. Then with a return 50-day trip south, the earliest migrants from the northern areas would reach the Gulf Coast in September. Since adults and young have been observed on the northern coast of South America by August 21, it is very likely that they must have come from the southern part of the nesting area.

 Many similiar cases might be mentioned, such as the black-throated blue warblers still observed in the mountains of Haiti during the middle of May when others of this species are en route through North Carolina to New England breeding grounds. Redstarts and yellow warblers, evidently the more southern breeders, are seen returning southward on the northern coast of South America just about the time the earliest of those breeding in the North reach Florida on their way to winter quarters. Examples of the Alaska race of yellow warbler have been collected in Mississippi, Florida, and the District of Columbia as late as October.

GIF - B-a-w warbler Isochronal migration lines
Figure 2. Isochronal migration lines of the black-and-white warbler, showing a very slow and uniform migration. The solid lines connect places at which these birds arrive at the same time. These birds apparently advance only about 20 miles per day in crossing the United States.

Students of migration know that birds generally travel in waves, the magnitude of which varies with populations, species, weather, and time of year. Characteristically, one will observe a few early individuals come into an area followed by a much larger volume of migrants. This peak will then gradually taper off to a few lingering stragglers. If we plot numbers observed against time, the rising and receding curve takes the form of a bell. In the northern part of the United States there are two general migration waves. The first one in early spring consists of "hardy" birds including many of our common seed eaters like the finches, sparrows, and others. The second wave occurs about a month later and consists primarily of insect-eating birds, such as flycatchers, vireos, warblers, and the like. Each of these species in turn has its own "curve" of migration in the major wave.

Time of Day
Because most birds appear to be creatures of daylight, it seems remarkable that many should select the night for extended travel. Among the many nocturnal migrants are the smaller birds such as rails, flycatchers, orioles, most of the sparrows, the warblers, vireos, thrushes, and shorebirds. It is common to find woods and fields on one day almost barren of bird life and on the following day filled with sparrows, warblers, and thrushes, which indicates the arrival of migrants during the night. Waterfowl hunters sitting in their "blinds" frequently observe the passage of flocks of ducks and geese, but great numbers of these birds also pass through at night; the calls of Canada geese or the conversational gabbling of a flock of ducks are common night sounds in spring and fall in many parts of the country. Observations made with telescopes focused on the full moon have shown processions of birds, and one observer estimated their passage over his area at the rate of 9,000 per hour. This gives some indication of the numbers of birds in the air at night during peaks of migration. At such times radar observations have shown that nocturnal migration begins about an hour after sundown, reaches a peak shortly before midnight, and then gradually tapers off until daybreak. Unless special curcuits are installed in radar sets, bird echoes during peak migration periods may cover a radar screen.

 It has been suggested that small birds migrate by night to avoid their enemies. To a certain extent this may be true because the group includes not only weak fliers, such as the rails, but also the small song and insectivorous birds, such as wrens, small woodland flycatchers, and other species that habitually live more or less in concealment. These birds are probably much safer making their flights under the protecting cloak of darkness. Nevertheless, it must be remembered that night migrants include also the snipe, sandpipers, and plovers. Most shorebirds are usually found in the open and are among the more powerful fliers, as some of them make annual migratory flights over 2,000 miles nonstop across the ocean.

GIF - Migration of the blackpoll warbler.
Figure 3. Migration of the blackpoll warbler. As the birds move northward, the isochronal lines become farther apart, which indicates that the warblers move faster with the advance of spring. From April 30 to May 10 the average speed is about 30 miles per day, while from May 25 to May 30 it increases to more than 200 miles.

Night travel is probably best for the majority of birds chiefly from the standpoint of feeding. Digestion is very rapid in birds and yet the stomach of one killed during the day almost always contains food. To replace the energy required for long flight, it is essential that either food be obtained at comparatively short intervals or stores of fat be laid on prior to migration. If the smaller migrants were to make protracted flights by day they would arrive at their destination at nightfall almost exhausted, but since they are entirely daylight feeders, they would be unable to obtain food until the following morning. Unless reserve energy was carried in the form of fat, the inability to feed would delay further flights and result in great exhaustion or possibly even death should their evening arrival coincide with cold or stormy weather. By traveling at night, they can pause at daybreak and devote the entire period of daylight to alternate feeding and resting. This schedule permits complete recuperation and resumption of the journey on a subsequent evening after sufficient energy has been restored.

 The day migrants include, in addition to some of the ducks and geese, the loons, cranes, gulls, pelicans, hawks, swallows, nighthawks, and swifts. Soaring birds, including broad-winged hawks, storks, and vultures, can only migrate during the day because their mode of flight makes them dependent on up-drafts created by heat from the sun for their long distance travels. On the other hand, swifts and swallows feed entirely on diurnal flying insects. The circling flocks are frequently seen in late summer feeding as they travel while working gradually southward. Formerly, great flocks of red-tailed, Swainson's, and rough-legged hawks could be seen wheeling majestically across the sky in the Plains States. In the East, good flights of broad-winged, Cooper's, and sharp-shinned hawks are still often seen, particularly along the Appalachian ridges.

GIF - Migration of the cliff swallow
Figure 4. Migration of the Cliff swallow. A day migrant that, instead of flying across the Caribbean Sea as does the blackpoll warbler (see Fig. 3), follows the coast of Central America, where food is readily obtained.

Because many species of wading and swimming birds are able to feed at all hours, they migrate either by day or night and are not accustomed to seek safety in concealment. Some diving birds, including ducks that submerge when in danger, often travel over water by day and over land at night. Strong flyers like the snow geese can make the entire trip from their staging area in James Bay, Canada, to the wintering grounds on the Louisiana Gulf coast in one continuous flight. These birds are seldom shot by hunters enroute between these two points but are often observed, when migrating, by aircraft pilots. Graham Cooch of the Canadian Wildlife Service tracked a flight of the blue phase of this species in 1955. The birds left James Bay on October 17 and arrived on the Gulf coast 60 hours later after an apparent continuous flight over the 1,700-mile route at an average speed of 28 miles per hour. Golden plovers, likewise, probably make the southward flight from the Arctic to the South American coast in one giant leap. Other Arctic species on their northward flight in the spring might prefer to fly at night in lower altitudes, but must necessarily fly during the day at higher altitudes because of the length of the days. Many warblers that normally fly at night may find themselves over water at daybreak and be forced to keep flying during the day until landfall is made.

 An interesting comparison of the flights of day and night migrants may be made through a consideration of the spring migrations of the blackpoll warbler and the cliff swallow. Both spend the winter as neighbors in South America, but when the impulse comes to start northward toward their respective breeding grounds, the warblers strike straight across the Caribbean Sea to Florida (Fig. 3), while the swallows begin their journey by a westward flight of several hundred miles to Panama (Fig. 4). From there they move leisurely along the western shore of the Caribbean Sea to Mexico, and, continuing to avoid a long trip over water, go completely around the western end of the Gulf of Mexico. This circuitous route adds more than 2,000 miles to the journey of the swallows that nest in Nova Scotia. The question may be asked: "Why should the swallow select a route so much longer and more roundabout than that taken by the blackpoll warbler?" The explanation is simple. The swallow is a day migrant while the warbler travels at night. The migration of the warbler is made up of a series of long nocturnal flights alternated with days of rest and feeding in favorable localities. The swallow, on the other hand, starts its migration several weeks earlier and catches each day's ration of flying insects during its aerial evolutions, while slowly migrating. The 2,000 extra miles flown along the insect-teeming shores of the Gulf of Mexico are exceeded by the great distances covered by these birds in normal pursuit of food.

 Although most of our smaller birds make their longest flights at night, close observation shows travel is continued to some extent by day. During the latter half of a migratory season birds may show evidence of an overpowering desire to hasten to their breeding grounds. At this time flocks of birds maintain a movement in the general direction of the seasonal journey while feeding on or near the ground. Sometimes they travel hurriedly, and while their flights may be short, they can cover an appreciable distance in the course of a day. 

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