Bird Migration Fun Facts!

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Over the past couple of weeks we’ve covered a lot of serious issues involving bird migration including explaining the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and steps that we can all take to prevent injuries to migrating birds. This week we’d like to continue to focus on migration season, but we though that it would be fun to add some lighthearted amusement. With that in mind, here are ten of our team’s favorite fun facts about bird migration!

Fun Fact #1: Birds don’t have to fly to migrate. (i)
While most birds migrate by flying, non-flighted birds can migrate as well. Large emus (Dromaius novaehollandiae) of Australia can migrate by walking and running, and penguins migrate by swimming.

Fun Fact #2: Birds don’t migrate exclusively in the fall and spring. (ii)
It’s true that migration peaks in the spring and fall, but in actuality birds are migrating all year-round. The time of year that bird species migrate is determined by many factors including weather, location, and any unique nesting requirements that a species may have, just to name a few.


Common loon (Gavia immer)

Fun Fact #3: Birds bulk up quite a bit before migrating. (i)
Migrating requires a lot of energy. To prepare for their long, strenuous journey, migratory birds will enter a state referred to as hyperphagia. When in hyperphagia, birds consume extra food which is stored as fat. This fat is then used as an energy source during migration so that migrating birds can fly for extended period of time without stopping to eat.

Fun Fact #4: Some species of birds can sleep while they migrate. (vi)
Well, it may not truly fit the conventional definition of “sleep,” but some species of birds are able to rest half of their brains during flight while the other half of the brain works to keep the bird flying. This is known as unihemispheric slow-wave sleep (USWS) or asymmetric slow-wave sleep. During USWS half of the bird’s brain is in deep sleep, and the eye that corresponds to that half of its brain is closed. Peregrine falcons (Falco peregrinus), white-crowned sparrows (Zonotrichia leucophrys), and mallard ducks (Anas platyrhynchos) are some of the migratory birds that can utilize USWS.


Unihemispheric slow-wave sleep

Fun Fact #5: There are four major flyways in North America. (vii)
The term “flyway” refers to a corridor or flying route that is utilized by many, many species of birds during their regular migration schedules. The four major flyways in North America are the Atlantic, Mississippi, Central, and Pacific flyways. The Florida Keys Wild Bird Center is located near the southern end of the Atlantic flyway, which extends all the way from the east coast of Canada down through the Caribbean and into South America.

Fun Fact #6: The word “migrate” has Latin roots. (iv)
Coined in the early seventeenth century, the word migrate was originally used to describe the movement of people from one place to another. It would later be applied to the movement of animals, including birds. In Latin this shift/movement was known as “migrare.”

Fun Fact #7: There are twelve different type of migration. (v)
The most common of the different types of migration is seasonal migration. In seasonal migration birds move between breeding and non-breeding ranges. This typically occurs in the fall and spring. A lesser known, yet interesting type of migration is altitudinal migration. This type of migration sees birds nesting at high altitude on mountain tops and then returning to lower altitudes during the cold winter months. Another less common style of migration is “leap frogging.” The easiest way to explain this type of migration is to create a fictional scenario in which we have two bird populations of the same species, groups ‘A’ and ‘B.” In this scenario group A is geographically located north of group B during the summer. Then as we transition into winter, group A migrates south while group B stays in place, and group A ends up spending the winter south of group B. The two groups don’t mix, so group A effectively “leaps” over group B.

Fun Fact #8: Arctic terns have the farthest migration route. (i)
Arctic terns (Sterna paradisaea) log nearly 50,000 miles in migration every single year. After spending the breeding season (summer) in the Arctic, these terns fly all the way to the Antarctic for winter (when it’s warm in the southern hemisphere). Arctic terns can live for more than thirty years, meaning that in a single tern’s lifetime it can fly a total distance (~1,470,000 miles) equivalent to traveling to the moon and back (~477,800 miles) three times!


Arctic tern (Sterna paradisaea)

Fun Fact #9: Some migrating birds fly very high while migrating. (i)
The current world record for the highest observed altitude of a migratory bird is held by a Ruppell’s griffon vulture (Gyps rueppellii) that was seen from a plane at 37,000 feet (7 miles) above sea level in 1975.

Fun Fact #10: Some birds can fly for over a week without stopping to rest. (iii)
In 2007 a female bar-tailed godwit (Limosa lapponica) flew nonstop all the way from Alaska to New Zealand, covering 7,145 miles. The flight too over nine days to complete, and it’s the current world record for the longest nonstop flight of any bird ever recorded.


Photo provided by the Audubon Society. Bar-tailed godwit (Limosa lapponica)

Ian Martin, Education Coordinator, 2016


(i) Audubon Society: 9 Awesome Facts About Bird Migration
(ii) 15 Fun Facts About Bird Migration
(iii) National Geographic: Alaska Bird Makes Longest Nonstop Flight Ever Measured
(iv) Migration
(v) Types of Bird Migration
(vi) Rattenborg, Niels C. (2006). “Do birds sleep in flight?”. Naturwissenschaften. 93 (9): 413–425.
(vii) Audubon: Flyways of the Americas

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