Last Updated on February 27, 2022

When you look at the sky and you see flocks of birds in that traditional migratory formation it inspires a calming and peaceful sensation. For many birders, it can be very fascinating to take the time from whatever task they’re doing and think about how these birds can fly for miles and miles in this perfect formation during migration. There are many different types of bird migration, but what makes these birds do this dangerous annual journey? How do they know when it’s time to leave? Where do these birds go? Let’s learn more.

Migration Patterns and Types

Below, you’ll find a list of the most common types of migration and the different migration patterns.


This is the most common and well-known migration. It’s very predictable since it’s based on seasonal changes as a bird will move between non-breeding and breeding ranges. The height of this migration is around spring and fall, however, in some places, this change between dry and wet seasons will be a major migration indicator.


This type of migration takes place between areas of different latitudes from south to north and north to south. This is a common type of migration with many species that will migrate from arctic climates to tropical climates. The direction of this type of migration will usually be determined by geographic features, such as coastlines and mountain ranges.


This is very similar to latitudinal migration. However, this type of migration involves changes between different longitudes from west to east or east to west. This is another common type of migration for many species in Europe where the geographic features will encourage a bird to move longitudinally.


A bird species that resides in tall mountains will usually exhibit migration that’s altitudinal. For this type of migration, the bird will move to a lower elevation once cold weather comes in and will ensure they steer clear of deep snowfall. A bird that uses this type of migration will not fly far in terms of distance, instead, they’ll fly just a few hundred feet of elevation, which can make a significant difference in available resources and habitats.


Sunrise sky

This type of migration includes a couple of different types of routes from or to breeding grounds and for birds who usually take advantage of a variety of resources at different times each year. As an example, a hummingbird will follow a coastal route during springtime when they’re flying from Mexico to Alaska. During this time, they may take advantage of wildflowers found on a mountainside on an interior southbound route during the fall. This type of migration is very common with many species of shorebirds and seabirds since they use seasonal variations in wind patterns in order to help them on their journey.


This type of migration is considered less predictable. In fact, it can be downright erratic, depending on the available water and food resources. A bird that is nomadic will usually stay within the same range, but it’ll be completely absent from certain parts of that range once resources are gone. However, they will return when the habitat is considered suitable, such as after it rains or when there is more prey in the area. The type of birds that are considered nomadic includes zebra finches and swans.


Irruptive migration is highly unpredictable, but it involves bringing large numbers of birds into highly unusual areas during the colder months. Unlike nomadic birds, these species of birds can be found far outside the range expected, however, the reason for this is the same: these birds will travel far and wide in search of water and food resources that are suitable. Species of birds that will follow this type of migration include varied thrush has, snowy owls, and crossbills.


Dispersal is not often considered a true migration, however, it’s relatively seasonal and predictable. This type of migration will occur only once in a bird’s lifetime. With this type of migration, younger birds will be forced away from their hatching ground in order to find a new territory, as their parents remain using the same range. This type of migration is fairly common among birds that are year-round residents that remain in the same area and will defend their territory all year long.


Skip migration refers to a unique pattern in which a northern population migrates a further distance in order to skip over a sedentary population of the same species. Thus, a year-round range is occupied in between the wintering and breeding grounds of the skip population however, the individual populations will not mix.


Considered an aberration among the migratory birds, reverse migration is often seen during the fall when a young bird can become disoriented or confused. Instead of migrating along the correct route, they will go in the opposite direction. These birds are lost and often end up as vagrants that are far from the correct location. This is most likely seen with individual birds, not a large number.


Some species will migrate to accommodate molting periods. With a molt migration, a bird will leave their normal range in order to stay at a secure and safe range while they’re vulnerable and not able to fly quite as well during this brief period. Once the molting process has been completed the birds will return to their regular territory, regardless of breeding or season readiness. This molting migration is often seen among a wide range of species of ducks and isn’t usually seen with other types of birds.

This type of migration is fairly common and can take place during any season, depending on the species and their molting period.


This is a very rare type of migration however, it’s an event that’s highly anticipated by many birders. When it occurs, it will involve a large number of birds that migrate have drifted from their usual migration routes and are often pushed by bad weather and high wind conditions. This results in an amazing fallout that involves many rare bird sightings.

Many people are surprised to learn that several species will use more than one type of migration whether it’s done accidentally or deliberately. Those who understand the different migration patterns are able to more easily recognize when it’s underway and can plan their excursions in order to take advantage of these types of rare sighting opportunities.

What Types of Birds Migrate?

Basically, a bird will migrate when the nesting and food resources have been exhausted in their habitat. This is often due to seasonal changes. While it’s not completely known for sure, many specialists believe that migration is often triggered by a combination of the change in the length of the day, in addition to genetic predisposition, the depletion of food resources, and falling temperatures.

A migrating bird may fly hundreds or thousands of miles to reach their destination while another species may fly just a couple of miles. There are many species of birds that migrate, each of which is classified as a type of migrant, whether they migrate long distances involving thousands of miles or just one or two miles down the street.

Long-Distance Migrants

These birds can travel distances from the United States and Canada all the way to South and Central America. This can include a wide range of North American species including swallows, arctic terns, orioles, warblers, tanagers, swans, ducks, geese, hummingbirds.

Nomadic Migrants

These species of birds will only follow the food. Once their food runs out they will move on and when they find a reliable food source they will call that place home. This type of migrant bird can include species such as Clark’s nutcrackers, blue jays, and robins.

Short Distance Migrant

This type of migrant bird can travel 200 to 300 miles and may travel just long enough to change elevation by moving down or up a mountainside. This type of migrant includes species such as the American tree sparrow and waxwings.


Some species will remain in their habitat and rough it through the winter, or they may travel just a mile or two in order to reach a warmer temperature. These birds are able to acclimate well to temperature changes and can eat a wider range of foods including suet and seeds. Species include finches, doves, pigeons, woodpeckers, chickadees, and cardinals. Cardinals remain a backyard birder’s favorite species for a variety of reasons and a bird they can enjoy sighting in their yard all year long.

To learn more about this species click here to read my article on how to attract cardinals.

Enhancing Their Chances of Survival: Why Each Species Migrates at Different Times of the Year

When a birder thinks of migration, they may only consider one type, which is the migration that takes place during the spring or fall, between wintering and breeding grounds. However, as you’ve learned by now there are many different types of migration that occur throughout the world, and there are all types of bird species that migrate every day from raptors and hummingbirds to ducks and songbirds. Understanding the different ways, a species will migrate can help the new birder to better appreciate the complexity of migration in general in addition to how well adapted many bird species are to these types of dangerous yet incredible journeys.

Some ornithologists still do not understand the different aspects of migration, but most can agree that a bird will migrate in order to increase their chances of surviving harsh conditions. This can mean finding the best birdhouse for nesting or taking advantage of a new reliable food source. In some cases, it can be a matter of moving to a safer, more suitable habitat during different periods of the year.

Each species has a different reason for migration, and they will also have a different way they choose to take on this type of dangerous journey. Some species stay aloft for several hours during a single long migration flight. Other species will need to take shorter journeys in order to refuel along the way. Some species may utilize different wind patterns or climates in order to aid in their migration. Some birds will navigate using astronomical cues or the stars, while others will navigate using landmarks. Considering the diversity concerning why and how a bird will migrate, it comes as no shock that there are many different migration types, and that migration can occur at any time of the year.

To learn more about the challenges of migration, click here to read my article on where do migrating birds go in the winter?

Summing it Up

Remember, not every bird will migrate. A few species such as the partridge will never move more than a mile or so from where they were born. Birds with this behavior are categorized as sedentary birds.

Long-distance migrants are the most famous, and this incluides species such as the swallow which breeds in Europe and will spend its winter in Africa. However, you would be surprised to learn that many other species do it as well. Even blackbirds in your own backyard can spend winter in Eastern Europe.

To date, there are as many as 4000 birds that are regular migrants. This is about 40% of the world’s total population of birds. However, some parts of the world often experienced a significantly higher proportion of migrants compared to other parts.

In the northern regions, including Scandinavia and Canada, there are many bird species that will migrate to the south in order to avoid a harsh winter. In more temperate regions approximately 50% of the species will migrate, especially those that live on insects and are unable to find a reliable food source during the winter months.

In hotter climates and tropical regions including the Amazon rainforest, you’ll find that not many species will migrate because the food sources and weather are very reliable all year.

Bottom line, different species of birds will migrate in different ways and for different reasons.

Final Thoughts

There are many different types of migration that are done for a variety of reasons whether it’s to find a better habitat, a new area that provides adequate shelter and a reliable food source, or a climate that is warmer and offers a better chance of survival. The most common reason a bird will migrate is to search for a warmer climate and a reliable food source. But remember, birds do not only migrate during the winter months. In fact, migration takes place all throughout the year and can depend on the species, climate, and sustainability of the habitat.