Celebrating Migratory Birds
8th May 2021 is World Migratory Bird Day. Since 2006, the second Saturdays of May and October have been designated days for celebrating migratory birds worldwide. The intention is to raise awareness of migratory birds and the need to conserve them and their habitats.
The key message of World Migratory Bird Day 2021 is “Migratory birds connect us with their unique songs and flights, and remind us of the importance of working together, across borders, to protect them.” As global ambassadors of nature, migratory birds not only connect different places across the planet, they also re-connect people to nature and to themselves like no other animals on the planet.
More than 4000 species of birds migrate, which is 40% of the total. Some birds undertake migrations of thousands of miles annually, crossing oceans, deserts and the planet’s highest mountain ranges. Here we celebrate some of the most impressive migrant birds and reveal some fascinating facts about their journeys.
Top Ten Amazing Facts about Bird Migration
The Longest Migration
The Arctic tern undertakes the longest annual migration, from the Arctic to the Antarctic, a round trip of more than 20,000 miles. During its lifetime, an Arctic tern may fly the equivalent of three times the distance from the Earth to the moon and back!
The bar-tailed godwit makes the longest non-stop flight of any migratory bird. Satellite telemetry has shown that this species migrates 11,000 kilometres or 8000 miles from Alaska to New Zealand in a single, awe-inspiring 8 day journey. A number of other species of wader, including knot, golden plovers, turnstones and sharp-tailed sandpipers, also undertake non-stop intercontinental migrations.
The Highest Flyer
The bar-headed goose holds the record for the highest flying bird. It migrates over the Himalayas at a height of five and half miles above sea-level. Studies have shown that the geese are able to slow their metabolism in order to fly in these extreme conditions, with as little as 30% of the oxygen found at sea level.
A Life on the Wing
Swifts spend their life on the wing, only landing in order to nest. They depend on warm weather for a steady food supply of flying insects. Hence they only spend 3 months of the year in northern Europe and young birds start their migration to Africa as soon as the leave the nest. It is thought that they carry the migration route in their genes, as they are not guided by their parents. In a lifetime of 20 years, a swift may travel more than a million kilometres.
Long Range Songbird
The Northern wheatear makes one of the longest migrations of any songbird. Wheatears nest in northern Europe, including the high arctic, and migrate south to winter in sub-Saharan Africa. The Greenland race makes a non-stop 30 hour 1500 mile journey from Greenland to Spain before crossing the Mediterranean. They rely on strong winds and their fat reserves to make this impressive journey.
The Eurasian swallow breeds in Europe and migrates to spend the winter in Africa. The UK population travels furthest, to South Africa and Namibia, a journey which takes six weeks. Swallows are diurnal migrants, stopping to roost at night, as they travel through Spain and Morocco and then cross the Sahara Desert and Congo Basin.
Storks Change Migration
Europe’s breeding population of white storks once used to migrate en mass to Africa, using a route either via the Straits of Gibraltar or the Bosphorus in Turkey. Storks require thermals to soar during migration, which don’t form over the sea. Now, however, many adult storks winter in Spain rather than undertaking the hazardous journey to sub-Saharan Africa, while young birds continue to migrate to Africa. The change in behaviour is thought to be due to warmer winters and the increased availability of food in their European range.
The ruby-throated hummingbird breeds in North America, reaching as far north as Canada and Alaska. It undertakes an amazing migration to its winter quarters in Central America. The journey includes a 900 mile journey across the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean. The hummingbirds use up so much energy during this flight that birds have to double their fat reserves before the crossing.
Indian Ocean Crossing
Amur falcons nest in Siberia and northern China and migrate south through India to spend the winter in southern Africa. This is the longest migration of any bird of prey. They feed en route on flying insects and stop at traditional mass roost sites. Their route takes them across the Indian Ocean, an impressive 2400 mile crossing.
Many species of crane migrate. The common or Eurasian crane has a wide breeding distribution across northern Europe and Asia, with strongholds in Scandinavia and Russia. It is a long distance migrant, travelling to winter in southern Europe, Africa and southern Asia. Cranes migrate in family parties, the young birds learning the migration route from their parents.
Find out more in our new gallery
If you would like to find out more about the many species of migratory birds, then head on over to our new Bird Migration gallery, which has more than 170 still images and clips of all kinds of migratory birds, including songbirds, wildfowl, waders, raptors and cuckoos.