Cornell Scientists Find Small Birds Use Wind Patterns for Looping Migration Routes

May 6, 2014

There's been somewhat of a breakthrough by researchers at Cornell University's lab of ornithology who have a better idea of just how small songbirds migrate.   Scientists have known for over a century that waterfowl like geese and ducks tend to follow the same, narrow migration paths.  

Blackpoll Warblers were one of the first species found to fly a different migration route in fall than in spring. The new research shows that many more songbird species migrate in similar elliptical, clockwise routes.
Credit Brian Sullivan
  But after combing through years of crowd-sourcing data, scientists can now say the travel habits of tiny land-based birds follow less-defined flyways, and instead depend on wind patterns. 
 LaSorte says until now, the migration of small songbirds was mostly speculation.   He says they’re hard to track because they migrate mainly at night and at high altitudes.  
The American Redstart breeds across much of North America, and uses the Eastern flyway identified in the study.
Credit Brian Sullivan
  LaSorte says many species come here to New York from the tropics to breed during the summer months. 
  LaSorte says this information can help scientists look more closely at where the birds are stopping to eat.  "Stopover habitats are critical for these species.   These birds are very tiny.  They need a lot of fuel to maintain these long migration journeys.  And they do that by stopping and feeding during migration.   If we can more carefully identify where those areas are, we can better preserve stopover habitat, and help these birds during a very stressful and energy demanding period of their lifecycle." LaSorte is the lead author of a new paper in the Journal of Biogeography that uncovers the mystery of terrestrial, or land bird migration.