Do All Birds Fly South For The Winter? See Which Birds Are Packing & Which Ones Stay Put!

May 31, 2022 // 10 minutes read // 2 Shares

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Do All Birds Fly South For The Winter

Bird migration is probably one of the most spectacular events we can witness as bird watchers. As winter nears, flocks of colorful birds fly over us to go somewhere that’s warmer for them. 

However, while some birds migrate, there are those who choose to stay. This is the reason why we even see beautiful birds outside our windows despite the cold weather. These birds include our Northern Cardinals, woodpeckers, Blue Jays, and even some birds of prey. 

But have you ever wondered why some birds choose to stay instead of migrating to warmer areas? Well, that’s exactly what we’ll share in this article. 

We’ll discuss: 

  • What is bird migration
  • Importance of Bird Migration
  • Non-Migratory Birds
  • Why some birds choose to stay
  • How resident birds survive the cold
  • Ways you can help

If you’re interested to learn more about these, read on… 

Bird Migration

Bird migration is a regular seasonal movement of birds. The direction is usually going from the north (their breeding grounds) to the south (their wintering grounds). It is most often driven by the availability of food and, of course, increasing their chance of survival. 

There are four main types of migration which are classified based on the distance a bird species travel to. 

  1. Permanent Residents: These are what we consider the non-migratory or resident birds. From the name itself, these birds don’t go any further from their territories as food may be abundant from where they are. 
  1. Short-distance Migrants: These birds travel very short distances, probably just a couple of miles away from their territories. Usually, they only travel from higher to lower elevations, or from mountains down to grounds.  
  1. Medium-distance Migrants: These birds cover a larger distance, often a few hundred miles away from their territories.  
  1. Long-distance Migrants: These birds are impressive fliers and cover very large distances. Movements are usually from Canada and United States to the wintering grounds in Central and South America.

While migration of short to medium-distance migratory birds is usually triggered by their need for food, this may not be the same case with long-distance migratory birds. 

Yes, food may be a factor in migration, but genetics play a huge part, too. These birds may not even be able to fly thousands of miles away from their breeding grounds to wintering grounds if their body won’t be able to take it. 

Traveling miles away requires a lot of stamina. The birds would need to consume more food than usual and they would also need to have really good navigating skills.

As we all know, the birds’ migration journey can be excruciating. A lot of birds can die, but it’s a risk they are willing to take if that means increasing their chance of survival in their wintering grounds. 

  • There will be more food
  • There’s a higher chance that they raise healthier offspring
  • The temperature may be less cold
  • They might be able to avoid predators
  • They can avoid being sick

In other words, for other birds, migrating means finding richer food sources, seeking safer nesting areas, and staying away from predators. 

But if migration can increase the chance of survival, why are there non-migratory birds? 

Well, that’s what we’re going to dive into deeper in this article. 

Some Birds Travel Extreme Distances to Migrate…

Have you ever wondered how some birds travel 25,000 miles from the Arctic, to Antarctica, and back again all within a year? Check out our article that soars far into this topic. Click the button below…

Resident Birds vs Migratory Birds

In the table below, you’ll find the list of the most common backyard birds we know. We divided them into migratory birds, resident birds, and both. 

Migratory BirdsResident BirdsBoth
American goldfinchBlack-capped chickadeeAmerican crow
Purple finchNorthern cardinalMourning dove
Ruby-throated hummingbirdRed-bellied woodpeckerRed-breasted nuthatch
American tree sparrowCarolina chickadeeAmerican robin
White-throated sparrowLewis’s woodpeckerNorthern flicker
Yellow-rumped warblerTufted titmouseRed-winged blackbird
Rose-breasted grosbeakWhite-breasted nuthatchBlue jay
Purple martinCarolina wrenChipping sparrow
Baltimore orioleDowny woodpeckerEuropean starling
Evening grosbeak (irregular)Hairy woodpeckerHouse finch
Indigo buntingHouse sparrowKilldeer
Arctic TernPileated woodpeckerCommon grackle
Ducks & GeeseCommon RavenDark-eyed junco
Common Redpoll (irruptive)Great horned owlEastern bluebird
QuailsAnna’s hummingbird
Barred owlBald Eagle
Turkey Vulture
Red-tailed Hawk

With this list, we can already point out what kind of birds choose to stay. This includes: 

  • Scavenging birds like vultures
  • Woodpeckers
  • Owls
  • Titmice
  • Chickadees
  • Birds from the corvid family
  • Some songbirds
  • Anna’s hummingbird (probably the only hummingbird that doesn’t migrate)

So, why do these birds choose not to migrate? You can check out the video below and learn more about it: 

Benefits Of Not Migrating

#1) Saves Birds From The Perilous Journey

As mentioned above, migration can be a difficult journey. Moving from one place to another because of the changing seasons can be risky, especially since birds can be met with predators, storms, hunted down by hunters, and many more. 

#2) Helps Save Birds Energy

By staying in their territories, resident birds will be able to save their energy. They won’t need to save lots of fat reserves to prepare for the journey. At the same time, the energy they have saved can be used more on things that would help them survive, including 

  • Searching for food
  • Watching for predators
  • Preening
  • Raising their children
  • Defending their territory

#3) Helps Them Defend Their Territory

Speaking of defending their territories, one of the biggest struggles of migrating birds are looking for new breeding grounds after winter. They’d have to search for new nesting areas, which can be pretty challenging as competition can be tight.

Non-migratory birds, on the other hand, don’t have this kind of problem. As they mainly stay within their territories throughout the year, they can keep on defending their breeding grounds. They might even move to other places, probably taking over the nests of birds that migrated. 

#4) Nurture Their Young

Some bird species choose to stay to spend their time caring for their chicks. While most birds breed for only one season, some breed and continue to care for their chicks throughout the year. 

It’s found that this bird behavior helps ensure that the young chicks can grow strong and healthy, increasing their survival. Many birds on the “less concern’’ list may have adapted this behavior. 

How Non-Migratory Birds Adapt To Not Migrating

Birds migrate to get more food, avoid the harsh winter weather, and increase their chance of survival. But does that mean that resident birds have a lower chance to survive? 

Well, not really. In exchange for migrating, non-migratory or resident birds have learned some ways to adapt to the cold and even change their activities to cater to their needs during the winter season. 

  • Changing Food Preferences: Food resources can be short during winter, so our resident birds would need to change their food preferences to survive. Instead of eating insects, they would normally go for fruits and seeds. They would also visit bird feeders to find more food there and might even help themselves for suet for added energy. 
  • Molting: Many resident birds staying in extreme northern habitats experience extreme winter, too. And in late summer and early fall, the birds undergo molting so they can gain extra protective layers of insulation that help preserve their body heat. 
  • Food Caching: Because food resources are low, some bird species cache their food throughout summer and autumn. They’ll hide seeds in crevices to retrieve them in winter when food is not enough.
  • Bold Personalities: Non-migratory birds tend to be more aggressive than others. They need to be if they want to protect their territories from fellow hungry birds looking for a place to stay or something to eat. 

They also need to be aggressive if they want to go out looking for food. There’s a big possibility that they will meet other birds that might attack them. 

  • Mixed Flocks: While it’s true that these birds need to be aggressive to protect themselves, there are also circumstances when they need to work with other birds to survive. 

They would often meet would other species and forage together in winter. With more eyes, finding food can be easier, and because these species also have different foraging techniques so they wouldn’t have to compete with each other so much. 

  • Roosting: Another way birds help each other is by gathering together so heat can be distributed well between them. This is a common behavior in very small birds. They crowd together in small cavities to preserve the heat in their bodies. 
Birds Flying In Blue Skies
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Photo by Robert So on

How can you help? 

Do you have non-migratory birds in your area? 

Lend them a helping hand by hanging some bird feeders during winter. This saves the birds all the trouble of going around circles looking for something to eat as they can all just visit your backyard. 

Hang bird feeders containing energy-rich bird foods. Prepare some suet, too, as these are the biggest source of nutrients and energy for birds in winter. You should also not forget to serve heated water, as these would help save the bird’s wings. 

If you can provide shelter, the birds would also appreciate those. You can hang some nest boxes where the birds can stay at night. 

FAQ About Birds That Don’t Migrate For Winter

What birds fly south the winter? 

Migration is a natural movement where birds move from north to south. The movement is triggered mostly by the changing seasons, availability of food, and habitat. 

Because winter can be very harsh in most areas in the north, birds opt to fly south where winter may not be as extreme, increasing their chances of survival. Food resources may become lesser as insects won’t be flying around much during the cold. 

On top of that, birds, like hummingbirds, who need to fly around constantly to eat would most likely be exhausted if they just stay in their breeding territories. 

How do birds know when it is time to fly south? 

Birds may have their own body clock. Researchers found that these creatures are away if daylight hours are reduced, which becomes their signal that winter is coming and that they need to fly south. 

Why do birds not fly south in winter? 

While many birds would like to stay away from winter, some don’t mind it. The list includes our favorite winter backyard birds: 

  • Chickadees
  • Blue jays
  • Northern cardinals
  • Titmice

Now, staying through the winter doesn’t necessarily mean that these birds are braver. It only means that their breeding grounds or territories may be providing them with everything they need to survive, which involves lots of food. 

At the same time, they may also have excellent adaptation skills that help them survive through the extreme cold. 

Final Thoughts About Birds That Don’t Migrate For Winter

Bird migration is probably one of the things bird watchers love to witness. And at the same time, you are left with this kind of sad feeling because you won’t be seeing these birds for months. The good thing, however, is we’re still left of beautiful winter birds that we can spoil throughout winter. 

These birds can’t risk leaving their territories, their young, or they may think that food sources are enough. They have developed extreme measures to handle the cold weather, such as: 

  • Molting
  • Roosting
  • Working with other flocks
  • Torpor

While these birds may have mastered their behavioral adaptation skills to survive the most extreme cold, they still need our help. 

So, even if your favorite backyard birds leave, don’t stop hanging some bird feeders to provide more food supply to the non-migratory birds left behind. 


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