What birds do not fly south for the winter

Migratory birds including the willow warbler, the garden warbler and the nightingale may eventually stop flying south for the winter as they spend longer in their European breeding grounds.

Analysis of more than 50 years of bird records from the Gambia and Gibraltar has found that some migratory species that cross the Sahara are spending between 50 and 60 fewer days on average in Africa each winter.

The study, published in the journal Global Change Biology, examined changes in arrival and departure dates in the Gambia and Gibraltar alongside changes in climate and vegetation.

While it was previously thought that birds timed their seasonal migration based on daylight hours, the analysis suggests that birds are making more nuanced decisions based on available vegetation and climatic changes.

Records from 1964 to 2019 analysed by scientists at Durham University found that species were arriving at their winter destinations later in the autumn than in the past and also departing these locations earlier in the spring, reducing the amount of time spent in their winter homes.

Over a 27-year period, migratory birds including reed warblers, northern wheatears and common whitethroats were found to increase their time in Europe by 16 days on average.

Lead author Kieran Lawrence at Durham said: “If the trends we have seen in this study continue, we may see that, in time, some birds will spend no time at all in sub-Saharan Africa, and instead spend the full year within Europe.”

Many of these small migratory birds are suffering significant declines in their British populations, with nightingales in danger of extinction and England’s breeding willow warblers down by 45% in the past 24 years. But populations of chiffchaff, a short-distance migrant that mostly overwinters in Europe or north Africa, have increased by 114% over the same period.

While a reduction in migration could help some species survive, Lawrence said there were wider potential implications in both Europe and Africa. “In Europe, the longer presence of traditionally migratory birds could lead to increased competition for autumn/winter food and resources for resident bird species that do not migrate,” he said.

“Meanwhile, in the traditional migration destinations of sub-Saharan Africa, a reduction in the time migratory birds spend there could have implications for ecosystem services such as insect consumption, seed dispersal and pollination.”

Global heating has already changed some patterns of short-distant migration to Britain, with many more blackcaps now spending winter in the country rather than moving to continental Europe. In Europe, the white stork has reduced its migration to Africa, with many birds wintering on the Iberian peninsula rather than moving farther south.

Co-author Clive Barlow, a bird expert from the Gambia, said: “It is very satisfying to see the constructive way the Gambian migrant bird records, collected by dedicated ornithologists over many decades, are now being used to highlight the changing migratory patterns of these species. Until the current research, no one had realised the extent to which migrant birds are spending less of the year in sub-Saharan Africa.”

Depending on where you live, you probably see fewer birds during the winter months. Many species migrate to more temperate areas, some traveling hundreds of miles. But there are those birds that stay behind, even in the coldest weather. Cardinals are some of the easiest to spot with their bright red feathers. Others you might see include chickadees, titmice, and downy woodpeckers. But have you ever wondered — why don’t these birds find a warmer place to spend the winter? 

What birds do not fly south for the winter

The answer has a lot to do with expended energy and the availability of food. It takes a lot of energy for a bird to migrate. But when the change in seasons means less food is available, it’s worth it to a bird to make that journey. Otherwise, the bird would not be able to survive through the winter. Birds that eat flying insects or nectar have to head south.

On the other hand, birds that eat certain types of seeds can usually find enough food. So can birds that look for insects or spiders under tree bark. These birds convert the food into body heat to survive even the harshest weather. For them, it is not worth the energy it would take to migrate.

Some species, like cardinals, have even moved northward over the years. In the 1920s, they were uncommon in New England. Today, they reside in the area year-round. This is due in part because people are supplying them with food in the winter. Birdfeeders filled with seeds have allowed them to expand their range.

Feed the Birds! 

You can help the birds in your yard, too! Just putting out a feeder with wild bird seed will provide them with extra food they can use to stay warm. You can also make your own feeder. Here are some ideas to try:

Milk Carton Bird Feeders 

Teacup Bird Feeders 

Pinecone Bird Feeder 

Planter Dish Bird Feeder 

Lego Bird Feeder 

To Learn More:

Check out some of these great sites!

“The Trail in Winter: Winter Birds.” Penn State. 

“Why Don’t All Birds Fly South for the Winter?” Tufts Journal. Tufts University. 

“Northern Cardinal.” Audubon.org 

Feature Image by AcrylicArtist

Photo by Robb

What birds do not fly south for the winter

Winter migration and the backyard birds that stay behind can raise many questions about how a bird survives such journeys and temperatures.

When the winter snow starts falling in many parts of the country, some backyard birds have already departed for warmer climates, while other birds are migrating into backyards from further north. Only the heartiest of colder climate wild birds, which have evolved for winter weather, have stayed behind. One is bound to wonder, “Who are these resilient birds, and how the heck do they survive the seemingly near arctic tundra of the winter season?”

The menagerie of winter bird species can vary and change depending on where you live, what your yard looks like and how the weather is acting. Below is a list of many of the commonly seen birds of winter that will frequent backyards throughout the country during the snowy season:

Many of you may be wondering how these birds are able to stay warm in the near-freezing temps and sometimes ceaseless winds that winter brings. It is quite simple actually. Think of yourself in a puffy down coat or under a big down comforter. When you're cozy and settled in, the down traps your body heat into little pockets of comfy warmth. The same is true for birds. To create insulation, our warm-blooded bird buddies fluff up their feathers and create their own little air pockets in between them. In a very short time, the air warms and the birds are wrapped in a blanket of cold-busting heat. In order to keep up this warmth though, the birds must eat a great deal of fat-rich food to generate the necessary heat. That is where the great importance of your backyard bird feeders comes into play! By feeding the right foods this winter, you can make the lives of winter birds much easier.

Eric is an amateur birder and photographer who is amazed by the natural world just about every day.

What birds do not fly south for the winter

Do ducks fly south for the winter? Read on to learn the answer to this, as well as why some birds stay to brave the cold and snow.

The Coming of Winter

In the northern reaches of the United States, just before the leaves start to fall, birds begin to flock together and prepare for their annual migration south. Birds that we usually see alone or in small groups during summer months will gather with others of their kind or often with those of other species. Waterfowl will congregate and form that well-known V pattern in the sky as they journey to warmer climes.

American robins vanish, not to return until the spring, reminding us that a long, cold winter is bearing down on us. As ominous as the dirge of some death knell, when the birds start to leave, we know the sweet warmth of summer is but a memory.

But not all birds fly south. Some remain through the snow and the cold, and some species are even more abundant during winter. Why do some birds fly south while others stay put? Why do some appear to thrive in the snow? When birds migrate, where do they go, what do they do, and how do they decide when it’s time to come back?

And how the heck do they know where they are going?

These are some of the things I ponder each winter as I watch the little black-capped chickadee dart around my birdfeeder and wonder where the rose-breasted grosbeak has gone. So let’s find out why birds fly south for the winter!

What birds do not fly south for the winter

The American robin is a migratory bird that is seen as a first sign of spring in many parts of North America.

Why Do Birds Fly South?

It seems logical that the reason many birds spend the winter months in more pleasant, southern locations might have something to do with the warmth of the sun. This isn’t exactly the case. Birds can and do survive extremely harsh winters. Like most migratory animals, the primary reason for moving is food.

In the summertime, food is abundant in northern climates because insects are active and plants and trees flourish. When it comes time to breed, birds want to be where they have the best shot at finding food for themselves and their chicks. When it becomes difficult or impossible to find food, it’s time to go to warmer climates where food is still plentiful.

For example, in northeastern states, the American Robin will arrive in the spring and leave sometime in the early fall. Robins eat worms, beetles, grubs, and other such insects, which they aren’t going to find in the cold and snow. You’ll never see a robin at your bird feeder; they will not eat foods that sustain some other birds. They need to fly south, or they will starve.

Ducks, geese, and other waterfowl are other good examples. Their lakes and ponds freeze, making it extremely difficult to survive in their intended environment. To find adequate food, escape predation, and maintain their healthy quality of life, they’ll move on to warmer climates. They fly in that V pattern to conserve energy and to improve communication between birds. However, sometimes waterfowl are known to overwinter in cold climates when humans overfeed them.

How Do Birds Know When it Is Time to Fly South?

Scientists say birds likely have an innate response to the reduction in daylight hours, signaling that winter is near and they’d better get moving. This is why, no matter how much you stock your bird feeder, many bird species will head south just the same. The exact day they start their journey will be influenced by local weather patterns, but it is the daylight that gives them the signal to migrate.

What birds do not fly south for the winter

The rose-breasted grosbeak will fly south for the winter, and may migrate as far as South America.

Why Do Some Birds Stay Through the Winter?

Some birds don’t seem to mind the winter. The black-capped chickadee, northern cardinal, blue jay, tufted titmouse, and others will brave the most brutal cold and snow. Feathers are pretty good insulators; most birds could make it through a harsh winter if they had to.

So if bravery isn’t the reason birds stay through the winter, what is? Again, the reason is their diet. Some birds don’t need to rely on the plenty of summer. They can forage for insects in the bark of trees and find enough food to make it through the cold, dark months. In fact, in some areas, even the American robin is known to stick around through the winter months if it can find enough food.

Other birds actually become more plentiful in winter. The dark-eyed junco is an example of a bird that will happily inhabit areas other birds have vacated in the winter months. In the Northeastern United States, Juncos will move down from their breeding grounds in Canada to overwinter in a comparatively milder climate.

If a bird is of a species that can find food in the winter, it does not need to migrate. Well-stocked bird feeders may help some species during exceptionally harsh weather, but otherwise, the birds that stay through the snow and ice will know how to find enough food to survive.

What birds do not fly south for the winter

The dark-eyed junco spends its winters in the United States and migrates to Canada for the summer months.

Where Do Birds Go When They Fly South?

When the birds leave the northern states, where do they go, and how do they know how to get there? Many migrating birds find their way to Mexico or Florida, overwintering in tropical climes. Others simply need climates where the food is abundant enough to sustain them.

How do migrating birds know where they are going?

Remarkably, birds seem to possess innate knowledge that helps them to negotiate their long migrations. They are believed to navigate by the sun during the day, and the moon and the stars at night.

There is also some research that says they are aware of magnetic fields in the earth and use them to find their way. It’s a kind of internal GPS, and one of the more impressive abilities in the animal kingdom.

The next question is one you may ask of people who move to Florida in the winter: Why do they come back? Of course, we can't speak for the people, but for the birds, again, it’s hardwired into their systems. When daylight hours begin to lengthen, birds know it’s time to come back to their breeding grounds.

Like many animal behaviors, the whole ordeal is naturally designed to facilitate the survival of the species through procreation.

What birds do not fly south for the winter

The blue jay sticks it out through the snowy winter .

The Amazing Bird Migrations

Birds are everywhere. They’re easy to take for granted, but they really are wonders of nature. The deeper one digs into their behaviors, the more interesting they become. This article dealt with North American birds, but there are some amazing bird facts from around the world.

For example: Did you know the bar-tailed godwit migrates from China to New Zealand in one flight, a distance of over 5,500 miles?

That’s crazy!

Now you know a little more about why birds fly south, what they do when they get there, and why some are brave enough to stay through the winter.

Resources and Further Reading

As always, the following resources were key in the creation of this article:

  • Cornell Lab of Ornithology
  • National Audubon Society

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Just a student on May 06, 2019:

I’m using this for a research paper. This made it a lot easier. Kudos to you.

Eric Dockett (author) from USA on November 20, 2015:

Thanks Kristen!

Kristen Howe from Northeast Ohio on November 19, 2015:

Eric, this was a real interesting hub on bird migration in the winter. I really enjoyed it and learned some good facts about it. Thanks for sharing.

Eric Dockett (author) from USA on October 23, 2015:

Thank you Suhail, and to your dog as well. :-)

Suhail Zubaid aka Clark Kent from Mississauga, ON on October 22, 2015:

Very educating indeed. I liked the way you wrote it.

Hope to read many more from you!