New Study: Migratory Birds “Surf” Winds Over Sea

A Peregrine Falcon with spread wings flying
Harry Collins Photography/

Written by Mike Mcpherson

Published: September 19, 2021

Share on:


Migratory birds traverse immense distances and a new study finds that’s not all done by wing-power. Rather than flap their way over water, which would be too energetically costly, wind patterns assist their flight. We’ve all watched them coast after a few swift strokes of their majestic wings, but what scientists uncovered was that migratory birds manage to ride the air — sometimes thousands of miles.

The study utilized temperature readings from the ocean and air to chart uplift, or winds that rise from the surface toward the sky. Then, by attaching GPS trackers to 65 birds, the researchers conducting the study gathered data on migratory bird movements across oceans. The results demonstrated a correlation between the biotracking data and the wind charts. Birds were using the wind to carry them.

“The birds maximized wind support when selecting their sea-crossing routes and selected greater uplift when suitable wind support was available,” the researchers wrote in their study.

Migratory Birds Learned to Coast

Though migratory patterns were previously understood, this research peeks into the how. Among the species observed by the researchers was the oriental honey buzzard. Data revealed the buzzards make their journey from Japan to Southeast Asia, a sixteen hour flight, without stops. They manage this feat by navigating into uplifts that form during the fall months, which propel them across the East China Sea.

They soar as high as a kilometer into the sky during their trek.

Likewise, smaller birds like the willow warbler, weighing less than half an ounce, manage even greater distances. Covering 16,000 miles, this small bird makes its way between northern Siberia and eastern Africa annually. That round trip contains very few pit stops along the way. This is possible by essentially making themselves passengers on the currents of the wind.

However, the study focused on larger birds, like ospreys and falcons, demonstrating the wide array of bird species taking advantage of the wind. Over 9 years, data shows species like ospreys and falcons tend to utilize tail winds more than updraft, with the inverse true for buzzards. However, most use a combination of the two in order to complete their journey.

While the study reveals some fascinating information about how migratory birds achieve their grand feats, it also yields troubling implications as climate shifts ocean winds.

Climate Change May Not Bode Well For Migrating Flocks

As the world warms, climate shifts, altering weather patterns. As a result, winds sweeping over the globe change direction, potentially disrupting the flight paths of migratory birds. As the study suggests, warm uplifts help deliver birds to their feeding and mating grounds. If these air currents change, birds reliant upon them could miss out on vital activities that ensure their survival.

It’s hard to perpetuate your species without mating. Missing their hot date would prove disastrous to their numbers. Likewise, failing to reach their destination might result in starvation and extensive loss of bird life. Given the delicate balance of global ecosystems, research like this study helps scientists form predictions regarding the future health of migratory bird species.

The impact of climate change has already registered in bird populations. By repurposing weather tracking technology to observe the migratory patterns of different bird species, other studies reveal a shift in the timeline. As summer gets off to an earlier start each year, birds appear to adjust their own schedules. Research concluded that many species shift their travel plans up 2 days per decade. While it sounds inconsequential, small changes on big scales yield dramatic results. Subtle shifts might, over time, put these birds out of sync with plant and animal life cycles they’ve become accustomed to.

What’s more, scientists witnessed changed to bird anatomy in accordance with new climate patterns. Their bodies shrink over time while their wings expand, permitting them to cool easier. From migration patterns to anatomy, it seems clear climate change is already impacting our feathered friends.

Share this post on:

Thank you for reading! Have some feedback for us? Contact the AZ Animals editorial team.