The Arctic tern travels from north of the Arctic Circle to Antarctica and back again every year. On the other hand, the Snowy Owl lives in the arctic region year-round; it doesn't migrate at all.
The Question of the Day:
Why do some birds migrate while other birds stay in one place?
The possible explanations are many. Maybe the type of food they eat is present only part of the year, or maybe they can’t stand the cold temperature. They might need to have their babies in a place away from predators, or perhaps migration is an evolutionary holdover that had a reason in the past, but no longer is necessary.
How could you start to determine the reason for migration in only some bird species? I would start by looking at how closely related the migratory and non-migratory species are. Maybe all the birds that migrate are more closely related to one another than to the birds that don’t move around during the year. This would suggest that there is a genetic basis for why only some species migrate.
One research group did just this in 2007. The looked at 379 species of flycatchers, a closely related group of birds. They found that almost equal numbers of species were migratory or resident, so it doesn’t appear that genetic relatedness is the answer.
Similar to the arctic region, the east coast of North America has species that migrate and species that are sedentary. About 80% of the birds species of the east coast move south during the colder months, but on the Pacific coast, almost all the bird species are non-migratory.
So migration is not due to the type of geography around the birds. However, the east coast of North America does have larger temperature swings than the west coast, so maybe it is just that some birds can’t deal with the cold.
Burning more energy to keep warm might tip them over the edge into starvation. To alleviate this problem, many birds can allow parts of their bodies cool down to freezing or near freezing, while keeping their internal organs at a temperature that will preserve their function. Blood flow is a major way to keep parts of the body warm, a duck standing on the ice can reduce the blood flow to its feet and reduce the amount of heat lost to the cold ice. The duck’s chest may be 40˚C, but its feet could be just one degree above freezing.
But let us look again at the arctic tern. It migrates from the north polar region to the Antarctic region in such a way that it sees two summers each year. But these are summers in name only. The arctic summer has an average temperature from -10˚C to 10˚C, so much of the time the tern is there, the temperatures are near zero.
The group who carried out the 2007 study concluded that the main reason that only some flycatcher species migrate is not due to what they eat, or when they breed, or what is trying to et them, but to how available their food source is. Whether they are fruit eaters, or insect eaters, or seed eaters, how easy it is to find their food is the most common reason that migration has evolved for a specific species in a specific location.
The food availability hypothesis is supported by certain types of migration that are common in North America. Irruptive migration is characterized by a population moving to another place, but there is no yearly, seasonal, or geographic pattern. The birds may migrate one year, then not again for a dozen years, or they might go for several years in a row. North American seed-eating birds are famous for these migrations. The distance and number of individuals that migrate are also not very predictable, and this all makes it sound like the movement is linked to food availability. However, it could also be to escape some population explosion in a predator species or for some other reason.
As an aside, it isn’t just birds that migrate. Mammals move from place to place, sometimes with a defined pattern during the year, but sometimes they just follow the food, a process called random migration. And some insects migrate as well.
For many years, the migration of the Monarch butterfly was believed to be the longest insect migration. But this is not the typical migration we think of, where an individual moves from one place to another and then back again. The migration of the monarch butterfly takes four generations to complete. Some generations are born and fly a long distance to lay their eggs, while others are born, live, and reproduce in a small area. But altogether, this butterfly moves from as far north as Canada to the high mountains of Mexico and back each year, about 7000 km (4400 miles).
Over a series of generations, the dragonflies move from India to the Maldives, some 600-800 km across the open sea. Then they move to east Africa, from Uganda to Kenya and Mozambique. In January, they start back toward India, and complete their migration of more than 18,000 km (>11,000 miles).
Davenport LC, Goodenough KS, & Haugaasen T (2016). Birds of Two Oceans? Trans-Andean and Divergent Migration of Black Skimmers (Rynchops niger cinerascens) from the Peruvian Amazon. PloS one, 11 (1) PMID: 26760301
Ahola MP, Laaksonen T, Eeva T, & Lehikoinen E (2007). Climate change can alter competitive relationships between resident and migratory birds. The Journal of animal ecology, 76 (6), 1045-52 PMID: 17922701
Hobson KA, Anderson RC, Soto DX, & Wassenaar LI (2012). Isotopic evidence that dragonflies (Pantala flavescens) migrating through the Maldives come from the northern Indian subcontinent. PloS one, 7 (12) PMID: 23285106