11 Magnificent Migratory Birds

A flock of barnacle geese fly8ing over the sea at sunset with blue and orange sky

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About 40 percent of the world's birds migrate, whether it's a short flight to a warmer locale or a long and arduous trek. Like other migrating animals, birds travel to find places with more resources or when breeding requires it. Plenty of variables play a role in how and when birds decide to migrate, including climate and the availability of food and other resources. Whether it's for their migratory treks — some of which are incredibly long — or their status as endangered species, these birds are all first-class travelers.

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Bar-tailed Godwit

White and black feathered Bar-tailed godwit with a long red beak standing in shallow water

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The bar-tailed godwit makes the longest non-stop migration of any land bird — over 7,000 miles. Each year, these birds travel over the open ocean from New Zealand to their nesting areas in Alaska, a trek that takes about seven days to complete. They make one stop along their summer journey, at the Yellow Sea, before continuing to Alaska. After the breeding season, bar-tailed godwits travel back to Europe and Asia for the summer.

In order to make this long, nonstop trip, bar-tailed godwits bulk up prior to their journey, eating extra food that is stored as fat.

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Whooping Crane

Whooping Crane Family

John Noll / U.S. Department of Agriculture / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

The endangered whooping crane is the tallest bird in North America, standing nearly 5 feet tall. Though you might not expect a taller bird to migrate, the wild whooping crane population makes a relatively short, but important trek. This population breeds during summers in Canada's Wood Buffalo National Park and travels south to Texas' Aransas National Wildlife Refuge for the winters, a journey of some 3,000 miles. Whooping cranes travel as individuals or in small family groups, migrating during daylight hours.

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Calliope Hummingbird

A green Calliope hummingbird on a bare branch

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These tiny hummingbirds are the world’s smallest long-distance migratory birds, and they make an impressive journey for their size. They travel 5,000 miles round-trip every year, leaving central and southern British Columbia in the later summer to make their way south along the Pacific Coast and the American West to reach Mexico, where the entire population — estimated at 4.5 million — spends the winter. They breed in the mountains, at heights of 4,000 feet and above, and build their nests in the trees 40 feet in the air.

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Orange-bellied Parrot

A bright green orange-bellied parrot standing on a small perch

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The orange-bellied parrot, one of only three migratory parrots, is critically endangered, with fewer than 30 left in the wild. A recovery program in Australia is showing signs of success, with a 2020 breeding season that produced 100 wild and captive orange-bellied parrots. These parrots don't travel far for their migration, journeying from their summer breeding grounds in southwest Tasmania to their winter habitat in the salt marshes and dunes near the coast in South Australia and Victoria, a distance of about 300 miles.

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Eurasian Wryneck

A brown Eurasian wryneck in a leafy green tree

Pierre Dalous / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

The Eurasian wryneck has a large range stretching across Europe and Central Asia. Depending on the starting point and final destination, they migrate between 1,500 and 3,000 miles. The birds winter in Africa, India, and southeast Asia, and spend summers in Europe and western Asia. 

They have shorter bills than other woodpeckers, so Eurasian wrynecks often reuse the holes of other woodpeckers for nesting instead of making their own.

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Northern Harrier

A northern harrier with wings widespread flying low over brown grass at a wildlife refuge

Tom Koerner / USFWS / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

North America is home to only one species of harrier, the northern harrier. This bird of prey, a member of the hawk family, has a large range that stretches from Alaska and some of the northernmost parts of Canada to the southern United States. While populations in the southern U.S. tend to stay put — there's no reason to migrate when you're already in areas with consistent temperatures — the harriers that reside further north will fly as far as Venezuela and Colombia to winter. During migration, the northern carrier prefers to stay over open fields and away from large bodies of water.

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Sooty Shearwater

A flock of sooty shearwaters flying low over the ocean near the beach

marlin harms / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0

The sooty shearwater is a common seabird with a most uncommon migration length. Found in both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, sooty shearwaters travel distances of thousands of miles annually. The Atlantic birds migrate about 12,000 miles each year, while the Pacific shearwaters travel 40,000 miles. Most sooty shearwaters make these journeys each year; only the non-breeding population stays behind.

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Northern Wheatear

A northern wheatear with a black beak and tan feathers standing on a pile of dirt

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The northern wheatear, which breeds all across Eurasia and along North America's northern coast, has a sizable range. Regardless of where they originate, when it comes time to fly south for winter, the northern wheatear heads for sub-Sahara Africa. In many cases, this flight involves traveling over oceans and ice, which are unusual environments for songbirds.

The birds that start from Alaska make a 9,320-mile trek to Africa, while those originating in eastern Canada travel about 4,600 miles. When the wintering season is over, they do it all over again to get back.

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Baer's Pochard

A green-headed Baer's pochard floating in water

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Baer's pochard breeds mostly in eastern Russia and central China, though there are reports of breeding in Mongolia and North Korea as well. Formerly breeding throughout northern China, the pochard’s breeding areas have declined significantly. The ducks head south for the winter to eastern and southern China, Bangladesh, Thailand, Myanmar, and possibly northeastern India.

Unfortunately, Baer's pochard is a critically endangered bird, with an estimated population between 150 and 700 mature individuals remaining. Due to hunting, the birds are most vulnerable in the winter. Degradation and loss of wetlands in their breeding grounds have also contributed to their decline.

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Snowy Owl

white snowy owl flies over snow

Bert de Tilly / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

The migratory habits of snowy owls vary from year to year, so they remain a bit of a mystery. They fly south when winter arrives in their northern Canadian and Arctic habitats, but sometimes they travel as far south as Florida and Texas. Snowy owls are more nomadic than migratory, leaving their traditional stomping grounds to hunt for prey at all hours of the day and night.

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Arctic Tern

A flock of arctic terns flying over Iceland at sunset with a blue and orange sky.

Arctic-Images / Getty Images

For a truly long flight, look no further than the migration of the Arctic tern. These small birds live in the Arctic Circle, but populations of them can be found in Massachusetts and England as well. The species has a convoluted and long trek to make it to breeding grounds along the Antarctic coast. The Arctic tern flies from the Arctic to the Antarctic every year, an impressive distance of 25,000 miles each way.