Why do birds migrate? And other bird migration facts

Flock of waxwing sitting in bare tree branches
Look out for autumn and winter visitors, such as flocks of waxwing (Photo: Dave Foker/WTML)

Around half of bird species found in the UK migrate (move from one country to another), travelling thousands of miles south, east and west. Find out about the comings and goings at this time of year.

Why do birds migrate?

Birds go where the food is. Many birds feed on insects and there aren’t so many around when the weather gets colder, so they head south to warmer countries where there’s more to eat. But some birds travel to the UK from their breeding grounds in the north and east to escape the freezing winter and because food, such as berries, is hidden under snow.

Where do they come from?

During autumn and winter, millions of birds arrive in the UK from more northerly countries like Norway, Sweden and Iceland, as well as from Russia and Eastern European countries. Some of them stay in the UK all winter, while some just stay for a few weeks to rest up and refuel before heading off again to spend winter somewhere else.

Birds need to wait until the wind is in the right direction so that they can get here without being blown miles off course. So keep your eyes peeled during October and November when the wind is northerly, westerly or easterly (that means the wind is blowing from the north, the west or the east).

Which birds migrate?

Autumn and winter visitors

Waterfowl like some species of duck, geese and swan like to spend the winter months in the UK, but so do some woodland birds. Here are a few species to look out for in woods, parks and gardens:

Redwings are thrushes with a rusty red colour on the underside of their wings and distinctive white eyebrows. You’ll often see them where there are lots of berries.

Redwing eating hawthorn berries
The red patch gives the redwing its name (Photo: iStock.com/MikeLane45)

Fieldfares are chestnut-coloured thrushes with a blue-grey head and rump (the bit above their tail feathers). They’re fond of berries too and like to hang out in large, chattering flocks, often with redwings mixed in.

Fieldfare on twig surrounded by autumn leaves
Look for the fieldfare's grey head (Photo: iStock.com/Carolus_Aves)

Waxwings are chubby birds with large crests on their pinky-coloured heads. Their wings and tails have yellow tips. They’re especially fond of rowan and hawthorn berries.

Waxing sitting among red berries
The flamboyant waxwing (Photo: iStock.com/mille19)

We have plenty of birds such as robins, starlings and blackbirds that live here all the time, but in winter their numbers are boosted by those coming from colder countries. That starling you see in your garden may have come all the way from chilly Eastern Europe!

Spring and summer visitors

Many species come to the UK in spring to breed and then fly south again when the weather starts to get colder. These include swallows, redstarts, nightingales, cuckoos and swifts. Flocks of swallows lined up on telegraph wires are a common sight in autumn – they’re getting ready for their long flight!

How do birds migrate?

Birds often migrate in flocks as there’s safety in numbers. Some large birds, such as geese, fly in an arrow formation – that’s an amazing sight! The bird at the front of the arrow cuts through the air and the others follow in its slipstream. They often take turns doing the hard work at the front.

Greylag geese flying in V-formation against a blue sky
Watch for the characteristic v-formation (Photo: iStock.com/Anagramm)

Why don’t migrating birds get lost?

Birds use the sun (which they can see even on cloudy days!), stars and landmarks to navigate, and often learn from older birds. Scientists have also found they have tiny bits of magnetic material in their brains, which gives them a sort of internal compass!

But it’s not fool-proof – birds can still lose their way from time to time and end up miles out of their way. This can sometimes happen when they are flying over the Atlantic ocean and get caught in a storm. If that happens, they can often end up in the west of the UK – places like the Isles of Scilly, Wales and western Scotland.

Where can I see autumn and winter migrants?

Head to the woods or your local park – or grab your binoculars and set up in your garden – to spot blackbirds, robins, fieldfares and redwings tuck into berries, seeds and worms. If you’re lucky, you might see a showy waxwing too!

Coastal areas are great places to spot migrants sweep in (and out!), and you can watch waders snaffling snacks in the mud too.

When is the best time to go bird watching?

Early morning and early evening are the best times for catching glimpses of migrants. That’s when the birds head off to feed or return to their roosts, so you’ll have a good chance of seeing a lot of birds at once.

Want to give birds a helping hand this winter? Rustle up some fat maggots or cheesy pine cones for your garden visitors to tuck into. Don’t forget to keep your bird ID sheet handy so you know who’s stopped by!

Find out more about our native woods and the birds and wildlife they support by becoming a Nature Detective.

Which birds have you spotted?

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