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Bird Migration Facts

Where are they going?

Flock of birdsHave you ever seen flocks of geese flying South in the Fall? Have you heard them honking? Have you wondered why they are flying in a formation that looks like a "V"? Have you wondered where they are going?

They, and many other birds, are migrating and you've come to the right place to learn about migration!

What is Migration?

Birds flocking around a treeThe word migration comes from the Latin word, migratus which means "to change." The word has special meaning when it refers to animals. Migration is the movement of an animal from one region, or habitat, to another. This happens at regular periods of time, and during a particular season. Birds migrate twice a year, once in spring and again in fall.

Animals migrate in order to breed, grow, find food or avoid cold weather.

Let's first review what makes a bird, a bird.

FeatherAll bird species have feathers. There are several other characteristics that birds share, but feathers are the only characteristic completely unique to birds.

PenguinsDid you know that not all birds fly? (Emus, Kiwi, the Cassowary, Ostriches and Rheas don't.) Some birds swim...like the penguin, which does its flying underwater. Explore all about flightless birds. Did you know that other animals besides birds can fly? Bats, which are mammals and not birds, can fly.

DuckOther interesting adaptations to life in the air are:

Lightweight, yet strong, bones and beaks, which are an adaptation to reduce weight for flying....

Incredible eyes and ears, bird song, bird feet, and nests.

Investigate birds...

What's in a name?

In order for scientists to be able to understand each other no matter what language they speak they have an international way of naming living organisms. The scientific names are written in a language called Latin.

This system of classification was established by Carl Linneaus in the 1750's when he described many North American birds. Learn more about the science of naming things, "Taxonomy".

Explore the Tree of Life from the University of Arizona. How are birds classified?

How are birds classified?

Kingdom: Animalia

Phylum: Chordata ( meaning "with a backbone")

Class: Aves (Birds) The Class Aves is currently divided up into 23 orders, 142 families, 2,057 genera and 9,702 species of birds.

Order: There are 23 Orders of Birds in the world. For example: Robins are members of the Order called, "Passeriformes." Eagles, hawks and falcons belong to the "Ciconiiformes" order.

Family: A further division... read Bird Families.

Genus: A further specific grouping.

Species: The basic unit of all classification. Every bird has its own double name that includes a genus name and a species name. The Robin's name is:Turdus migratorius.

Why do birds migrate?

Birds seek out places that have warmth, food and are safe for breeding.

Seasonal migration primarily happens in the Northern-Hemisphere, because in the Southern Hemisphere, especially in the tropics, it is always warm enough for an adequate year-round food supply, and there is little variation in the length of day throughout the year, so birds have plenty of time to eat in a day. So, not all birds migrate.

During the long days of the northern summer, birds have more hours to feed their young on the abundant insect population. As the days shorten in the north in autumn and food supplies become scarce, the birds migrate south.

There are 4 kinds of migrating birds:

  • Permanent residents are non-migrating birds who remain in their home area all year round.

  • Summer residents are migratory birds that move north in the spring, nest during the summer, and return south in the fall.

  • Winter residents are migratory birds who fly south for the winter.

  • Transients are migratory species who nest farther north than our neighborhoods, but who winter farther south. We only see transients as they are passing through.

Migrating Birds

Where do birds go?

Many species migrate very long distances. It is very common that birds will migrate to the northern hemisphere in the summer where they can breed in a cooler climate. In the winter they will head to the southern hemisphere where the climate is more temperate. This pattern is known as a flyway. It is sort of a highway that birds fly.

When do birds migrate?

Each species migrates at a certain time of year and time of day. Some are very irregular in their migration patterns.

Some species start their migration south in early July and some don't migrate until the weather gets too harsh or the food becomes unavailable later in the fall.

Experiments show that day length stimulates migration. In the Spring, you might see migrating birds as early as January in Florida!

Most birds fly by night in small flocks. This allows them to eat during the day, and avoid some predators.


There are 4 main Flyways, or routes, in North America that most migratory birds follow between their summer and winter residences.

They follow certain established migratory routes and pass through at predictable times. These routes tend to avoid land forms that might block their way, such as mountains, or water.

Ospreys, eagles, vultures, and hawks and known as soaring birds. They have a special talent at finding hot air rising from the land. The heated air spirals up and is known as a thermal. They use this spinning air to soar with by floating upon a thermal and gliding down to the next one. This helps them to save energy needed for long journeys.

Soaring Birds

How do they keep going?

CranesSome birds eat along their journey by finding food when they are hungry. But some birds eat more just before migration. They store a special, high-energy fat in their body to last them for several weeks as they migrate.

The Arctic Tern has the longest known migration route. It flies about 22,000 miles each year between its breeding grounds in the high Arctic and its winter grounds in the Antarctic.

Snow Birds
By Cherry Carl
(Tune: Do Your Ears Hang Low?)

There are folks up north who travel back and forth.
When the temperature's low, it is time to go!
It's never a vacation.
It's a massive man migration
When it's time to go!

They take their trailers and their big RV's.
They camp at the shore and beneath the trees.
They use their maps and their talking GPS
To avoid the mess!

There are birds up north who travel back and forth.
When the temperature's low, it is time to go!
It's never a vacation.
It's an avian migration
When it's time to go!

They all fly together through the wind and the weather.
They take a few breaks at the ponds and the lakes,
But they need no maps, for goodness sakes!
They know where to go!

This poem was written especially for Dialogue4Kids - courtesy of Cherry Carl. For additional poems on science, history, language, and holidays visit her website at: Carl's Corner

How do birds find their way?

Navigation is complicated because it requires three things: birds must know their current location, their destination and the direction they must take to get there.

NavigatorSome birds use the sun and the stars to navigate. Some also use landmarks like rivers, mountains or coastlines. Some might use smell. Still others might follow the other birds in the flock.

Some even monitor the Earth's magnetic field. These birds are able to use their visual system along with tiny grains of a mineral in their heads. This mineral, called magnetite, might act like a compass.

Not all is known about how birds find their way but they probably use more then one method.

Study navigation and orientation.

How fast do birds fly?

Speed ranges from 20 to 50 miles per hour. Larger birds fly faster than smaller birds. If the flock flies for 10 hours a day, then they could fly about 400 miles a day!!!

Speed Limit

How high do birds fly?

Radar studies show that most flight occurs at less than 10,000 feet, but some have been recorded flying at 27,000 feet!!

Birds on long-distance migrations fly at higher altitudes than short-distance migrants.

What are the dangers of migration?

Sometimes birds must fly across harsh habitats such as deserts, where there is little water, or oceans, where there is no place to land and little food to eat. Sometimes stormy weather may make the trip difficult. There can be many predators along the migration route.

How do ornithologists study birds and migration?

Cartoon BirdBird banding or ringing is one method used to study wild birds. Scientists attach a small individually numbered metal or plastic ring to a bird's legs or wings. They also use mist nests as a way to capture birds. This way they can capture and re-capture the same individual and measure and weigh it and gather other important information.

Here are excellent photos of that process.

Sometimes scientists use satellite tracking for follow birds on their migration routes.


Birdwatching is the second largest hobby (gardening is the first) in North America with over 31 million participants.

Start watching here: Internet Bird Collection, an on-line audiovisual library of footage of the world's birds.

Study bird behavior in your own backyard...

Bird Watcher

Develop your bird watching skills with the Directory of Bird Watching Clubs in Idaho.

Head to another D4K topic and become familiar with Birds of Prey.

Take a peek at a career as an ornithologist.

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