Whether it be in spring or fall, migration is a truly awe-inspiring phenomennon. In North America, most bird species migrate to some extent, with more than 350 species traveling between their summer ranges in the U.S. and the tropics each fall to overwinter. Here are just some of the many incredible facts about our migrants.
1. At least 4,000 species of bird are regular migrants, which is about 40 percent of the total number of birds in the world. (Although this number will likely increase as we learn more about the habits of birds in tropical regions.)
2. Birds can reach great heights as they migrate. Bar-headed geese are the highest-flying migratory birds, regularly reaching altitudes of up to five and a half miles above sea level while flying over the Himalayas in India. But the bird with the record for the highest altitude ever is the Ruppel’s griffon vulture, which collided with a plane at 37,000 feet (that’s seven miles!) in 1975 and was unfortunately sucked into its jet engine.
3. The Arctic tern has the longest migration of any bird in the world. These black-capped, red-billed birds can fly more than 49,700 miles in a year, making a round trip between their breeding grounds in the Arctic and the Antarctic, where they spend their winters. The lucky bird gets to see two summers a year! And over its lifespan of more than 30 years, the flights can add up to the equivalent of three trips to the moon and back.
4. Speaking of long distances, the northern wheatear travels up to 9,000 miles each way between the Arctic and Africa, giving it one of the largest ranges of any songbird. What makes this an amazing feat is that the tiny bird weighs less than an ounce, on average.
5. The award for fastest bird goes to the great snipe: It flies around 4,200 miles at speeds of up to 60mph! No other animal travels at such speeds for such long distances. Birds usually utilize tailwinds (winds blowing in the same direction they fly) to help them go faster, but the snipe’s speeds don’t seem to be a result of that.
6. The bar-tailed godwit can fly for nearly 7,000 miles without stopping, making it the bird with the longest recorded non-stop flight. During the eight-day journey, the bird doesn’t stop for food or rest, demonstrating jaw-dropping endurance.
7. Migration can be extremely dangerous for birds, and many don’t often make it back to their starting point. Sometimes natural occurrences like harsh weather play a role, but many times, human activities are the cause of birds’ untimely demise. In the United States alone, up to one billion birds die each year from window collisions. And approximately seven million die from striking TV and radio towers in North America annually, ABC News reports.
8. To prepare for the extremely taxing effort of migration, birds enter a state called hyperphagia, where they bulk up on food in the preceding weeks to store fat, which they’ll later use for energy on their long journeys. Some birds, like the blackpoll warbler, almost double their body weight before flying 2,300 miles non-stop for 86 hours.
9. Even birds that don’t fly migrate. Emus, the large Australian birds, often travel for miles on foot to find food, and many populations of penguins migrate by swimming.