Fall Bird Migration: Nature’s Management and Ancient Myths

Fall Bird Migration: Nature’s Management and Ancient Myths

Artic Tern flying by Jacob Spinks CC Wikimedia
Artic Tern, by Jacob Spinks, CC Wikimedia

Fun Fact: The Arctic Tern do their fall bird migration from the North Pole to the South Pole. They literally spend the summer in the Arctic, and a second summer in the Antarctic! The birds fly around the distance around the earth each year, spending the summer in 24 hours-of-daylight in both places. They have the longest migration of any bird on earth.

Ancient Myth: Long ago, some experts espoused that storks and other large birds fly to the moon in the fall, in 60 days no less. Since there is nothing to eat on the moon, they hibernate until it is time to fly home to earth. Now that’s a long migration!

Why to birds migrate south in the winter? How do they know when it is time for them to join the fall bird migration? Where are they headed? How do they know the route? Learn the answers to how nature manages the amazing fall bird migration, as well as some ancient myths and fun facts.

Why – Check the Pantry!

So how do the birds know it is their turn for the fall bird migration? It is based on weather, which controls availability of foods. As the days get shorter, the birds respond by preparing to the upcoming changes. They must migrate before their sustenance is at risk by cold weather. Birds migrate in the order of the risk of loss of their natural food source.

Cold fronts also effect the timing of the fall bird migration. Birds like to fly ahead of cold fronts. The tailwinds make their journey faster and easier.

When Does My Group Get to Go?

The fall bird migration timing of each species is dependent on the food it eats.


Fall Bird MigrationSwallow-birds-meeting-by-Petr-Kovar-CC-Free
Swallow, by Petr Kovar, CC Free Images
  • Exclusive insect eaters leave in late summer, such as: Flycatchers, Martins, Swallows, Swifts, Warblers and Shorebirds.
  • Nectar drinkers leave before the chance a frost will wither the flowers, such as: Hummingbirds, Downy Woodpeckers and Sapsuckers.
  • Fruit-and-insect eaters are next, such as: Bluebirds, Catbirds, Orioles, Tangers, Thrashers and Thurshes.
  • Seed eaters are generally at the end of the list, such as: Blackbirds, Buntings, Grackles, Grosbeaks, Juncos and Sparrows.

Ancient Myth: According to Aristotle birds don’t migrate. They hide at the end of summer. For example, he believed that Swallows hide in hollow places, almost stripped of their feathers, until spring.

Where – Are We There Yet?

Swift, by Nanda Ramesh, CC Wikimedia
Swift, by Nanda Ramesh, CC Wikimedia

The fall bird migration is accomplished over many terrains, at different speeds, heights, time of day and even in different modes of transportation.

Most songbirds fly at about 30 mph. Ducks travel at double that, 60 mph. Sandpipers fly at up to 100 mph during migration.

However, Swifts are really fast. They hold the record of up to 200 mph!

Nonstop flight

Fall Bird Migration Ruby-throated hummingbird by Sandi Gannon
Ruby-throated Hummingbird by Sandi Gannon

Some birds fly for days nonstop, especially over water and the desert. Birds can fly over the Sahara Desert in 50-60 hours without stopping. Other birds stop for days at one location to eat and enjoy the habitat. Canadian Geese, for instance, may stop in Massachusetts around its many lakes.

Fun Fact: Ruby-throated Hummingbirds from the US migrate across the Gulf of Mexico to Central America in 18-22 hours. These tiny birds fly 30-40 mph at about 25 feet above the water.

Travel by Day or by Night?

Fall Bird Migration Sparrows, by Rudy Tiben, CC Free Images
Sparrows, by Rudy Tiben, CC Free Images

Nocturnal migrating birds tend to be relatively weak fliers who fly at higher altitudes than those who fly by day. By flying at higher and by night, they avoid most birds-of-prey that may be looking for a quick meal. They will usually feed on the ground during the day, and then be gone the next day. Birds that prefer to fly-by-night include thrushes, wrens, warblers and sparrows and most songbirds.

Strong birds that feed on the wing like to migrate during the day. Daylight migrating birds include Swallows, Hawks, Geese and other large birds.

Ducks and Shorebirds don’t seem to have a preference. They migrate during the day or night.

Ancient Myth: Swallows were once thought to simply spend the winter asleep in mud at the bottom of a pond. They hibernate there all winter and then recover in the spring.

Not Every Bird Flies

Fall Bird Migration California_Mountain Quail_Fallon_NV_by Beverly Orozco CC Wikimedia
Mountain Quail, by Beverly Orozco, CC Wikimedia

Not all fall bird migrations take place in the air!

Penguins migrate in the water. Emus migrate on foot for over 300 miles.

California’s mountain quail migrate by foot altitudinally. They nest in the summer at 10,000 feet in the Sierra Nevada, then walk to about 5,000 feet for the winter.

How – GPS Please

So, how do migrating birds know where they are going and how to get there? Scientists have multiple possible answers to answer that question. Some or all of them may be correct.

Certainly, it is highly likely that more than one of the following explanations are in play:

Geese flock by richard-lee-700850-unsplash
Geese Flock, by Richard Lee, CC Unsplash
  • Birds have an inbred message encoding the route itself at hatching. They also have an “internal clock” from birth.
  • Older birds, who have made the fall bird migration before, use their previous experiences to correct their route. They use landmarks such as rivers and mountains. This could explain the higher migration mortality rate of young birds.
  • Sun and stars are used as a compass when visible. However, since birds continue the correct flight route when under, inside or above layers of clouds, they must use more than stars and landmarks to guide them.
  • Birds use the earth’s magnetic field and the mechanical effects of its rotation to orient. This unusual hypothesis is supported by the fact birds don’t migrate across the poles.
  • Thermal radiation also helps them orient. There is less thermal radiation in the south than in the north. That seems rather vague to me, but I’m not a scientist.
  • Even though birds are known to have a poor sense of smell, some still find their route by smell. Homing pigeons are known smell their way home. That isn’t really a migration, but it can be a long distance.

Fun Fact: Bar-headed geese fly at heights 30,000 feet during migration. As Bar-headed Geese fly over the Himalayan Mountains, they achieve the record of the highest altitude flight of any birds.

Hot Spots for Observing Fall Bird Migration

Autumn Migration Benefits of Bird Watching - pleasurd
Migration Bird Watching
  • Cape May, New Jersey: Cape May Bird Observatory
  • Long Point, Ontario, Canada: Long Point Bird Observatory
  • Point Reyes National Seashore, California: PRBO’s Palomarin Field Station
  • Big Sur, California: Big Sur Ornithology Lab
  • San Pedro, Arizona: San Pedro National Riparian Conservation Area
  • Fort Morgan, Alabama: Bird Banding-Hummer Bird Study Group at Fort Morgan
  • Your Home Area – Most areas have bird sanctuaries and nature walk areas.

Ancient Myth: It was once believed that when Swallows migrate, they carry 2 wondrous stones which they have swallowed. The red one cures an invalid instantly. The black one brings good fortune. Unfortunately, a person must obtain the stone from the bird to get the benefit.


I hope you have enjoyed Part 2 in the blog series on Fall Bird Migration: Myths, Fun Facts and Basics. If you have questions, or want to share your experiences and stories about Orioles, 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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