Autumn Migration: Imminent Signs, Myths & Fun Facts

Autumn Migration: Imminent Signs, Myths & Fun Facts

Fun Fact: Snow Geese migrate a whopping 3,100 miles south from Arctic Canada every autumn migration, at an astounding altitude of 29,500 feet!

Ancient Myth: Geese were once believed to willingly carry small birds on their backs during fall bird migration. Why? The small birds’ merry twittering help kill the time of the long migration! Also, small birds are too weak to make the migration. (No one told Hummingbirds)

Autumn Migration Benefits of Bird Watching - pleasurd

Signs that Autumn Migration is imminent can be easily recognized, if you know what to look for. Learn the clues that indicate the birds are headed south soon. At the same time, in this two part blog series, enjoy ancient myths and fun facts about bird migration.

Signs of Autumn Migration

The Song is Gone!

Autumn Migration Backyard Bird Watching of Northern Mockingbird
Northern Mockingbird, by Steve Voght, Public Domain

The first clue each year that autumn migration is approaching is the quiet. Most of the singing stops! The fall nesting and raising of the young is done for another year. Songbirds no longer need to sing to attract mates or claim territory. There will still be an occasional singing in the woods, but they won’t be bursting with morning song.

Change Feathers for Fall Colors

American Goldfinch, by Maria Corcacas, CC Free Images

With fall molting, many bird species change their bright feathers for muted fall colors. Some species are even hard to recognize as the same birds that flitted around the feeders all summer. However, not all birds trade in their flashy summer colors as autumn migration approaches. Cardinals and Jays are prominent examples of birds that remain brightly adorned year-round. A few species that trade in colorful summer feathers for duller fall colored feathers include:

Autumn Migration Scarlet_Tanager by CheepSchot, CC Wikimedia
Scarlet Tanager, by CheepShot, CC Wikimedia
  • The bright yellow American Goldfinch male changes to a dull green.
  • Scarlet Tanager’s vivid red-orange head is exchanged for a green head.
  • Rosy Finch males become mostly pale grayish brown.
  • Even the unpopular Starlings join in the change to fall colors. They lose their glossy iridescence for a spangled appearance with light spots, and their bright yellow bill actually turns dark.

Ancient Myth: According to some ancient experts, European Redstarts change into European Robins at the onset of fall, and conveniently change back in the spring.

I Feel Like Something Different for Dinner

Autumn migration Bobolinkby U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Steve Maslowski CC Wikimedia
Bobolink, by Steve Maslowski USF&WS, CC Wikimedia

Migrating birds need a lot of fat to burn during their long distance flights. As they prepare for the fall bird migration, they start to gobble up berries and other fruit. Suet becomes very popular at the bird feeders due to its high fat content. Grain is consumed with fervor.

Fun Fact: Bobolinks eat 38% more food in the autumn than in summer. Their diet changes from 90% insects to 90% grain. By the time they hit Florida, Bobolinks weight has increased by an additional 50% of their original weight. They actually have enough fatty fuel to cross the Caribbean non-stop.

Flocking Together

Autumn Migration Geese - massive migration of snow geese by mathew-schwartz-748927-unsplash
Massive Flock of Snow Geese, by Mathew Schwartz, CC Unsplash

During the spring and summer nesting and raising of their young, birds tend to hang out two-by-two. As summer approaches its end, birds begin to flock together in preparation for wintering in-place or autumn migration. Initially they will flock in small family groups. You may notice some birds coming to your feeders in flocks instead of pairs.

As the flocks grow larger, birds of only one species may flock together for the autumn migration. However, often a flock will be of multiples species of similar habits. Chickadees and Titmouse are known to flock together. When birds start flocking, autumn migration is in progress.

Fun Fact: Geese migrate in huge flocks, often in the tens of thousands. Interestingly, pairs stay together within the flocks.

Why Leave Home for the Wild Blue Yonder?

Autumn Migration birds silhouette in orange sunset by barth-bailey-591712-unsplash
Migrating Birds Silhouette, by Barth Bailey, CC Unsplash

So why do birds make these bi-annual journeys between their summer and winter homes?

For summer homes, they choose ideal habitats for nesting and raising their young. Their summer breeding areas are also flush with their natural food.

In fall, they adapt to the changing environment. The days begin to get shorter, indicating to them the weather will soon grow colder. The natural foods for them will become scant, if they don’t cease to exist at all. Birds make an autumn migration south to a warmer climate before sustenance becomes an issue. Migrating to their warm winter home ensures a good food supply for the winter.

Stay or Go

Butumn Migration Benefits of Bird Feeding - Elderly
Pigeons – Resident Birds, by Caitlyn Wilson, CC Unsplash

Some birds do not participate in the autumn migration at all. Examples include:

  • Some favored resident birds are: Northern Cardinals and Black-capped Chickadees.
  • Often, not so popular birds hang around all winter, such as: Turkey Vultures and Pigeons.
  • Some birds of prey do no migrate either, including: Red-tailed Hawks and Great-horned Owls.
Autumn Migration Backyard Bird Blog -Blue Jay with a Peanut
Blue Jay, by Saforrest, CC Wikimedia

Species whose territories are very large may have partial migration. Birds that winter in a frigid area take an autumn migration south. Birds of the same species that spend the summer in a milder climate, may winter there as well. Jays may migrate from their northern breeding grounds but stay the winter in their southern nesting grounds.

Sometimes partial migration consist of some birds of a species migrating, but others not migrate from the same nesting ground. Scientist are unsure why this phenomenal exist.

Also, birds that are fed well at bird feeders year-round will sometimes not migrate. Hummingbirds have been known not to migrate from areas populated with many nectar feeders.

Ancient Myth: Hummingbirds were believed to not migrate but rather sleep every year from October to April. They sleep sitting on a little limb in a warm place.

That’s a Lot of Travelers

Autumn Migration, Rufous_Hummingbird_Male by US Fish & Wildlife Service Roy W. Lowe CC Wikimedia
Rufous Hummingbird, by Roy W. Lowe USF&WS, CC Wikimedia

A huge number of birds migrate annually. At least 5 billion birds make the autumn migration every fall from North America to Central America or South American. Each autumn migration includes 85% of North America’s 645 species of birds.

Some birds migrate great distances, and others only miles south of their nesting grounds. Scientists are not sure why birds migrate a short distance in their own territories. Most songbirds winter in Central America and South America.

Fun Fact: Rufous Hummingbirds migrate more than 3,500 miles every fall bird migration. The tiny birds fly the equivalent of around the world about every 3 years!


I hope you have enjoyed Part 1 of the fall migration series blogs: Autumn Migration Clues: Myths, Fun Facts and Signs. If you have questions, or want to share your experiences and stories about fall bird migration, please leave a comment. I promise to answer every comment.

If you would like to read more articles from the Bird Watching Made Easy blog, follow this Index link.

Happy Bird Watching,

JoAnn Timberlake

Author of Bird Watching Made Easy

Admin of the Facebook group, Backyard Bird Watching Crew

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2 Replies to “Autumn Migration: Imminent Signs, Myths & Fun Facts”

  1. I am wondering about Northern Flickers? Do they migrate?
    We live in Surrey, – Fleetwood area, and they have – over the past two years, taken a liking to our wood house trim!! I am a bird lover but these have tested that position!!

    1. Elaine,

      I’m sorry to let you know, it is unlikely the Northern Flickers will migrate from the Surrey area. They reside year round in the southern part of Canada and up the coast almost to Alaska, as well as almost all of the continental United States.

      I hope you find a way to gently discourage them away from your wood house trim.

      All the luck ~ Jo Ann

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