Migratory vs. Resident Birds: What Is The Difference?

June 1, 2022 // 16 minutes read

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migratory vs resident birds

Bird migration is a seasonal movement that allows us to look up at the sky and admire our favorite bird species as they seek another territory for shelter. However, as you may also notice, there will always be birds in your area, even with the bird migration happening. This article will focus on migratory vs resident birds and their behaviors. 

Why? This is because birds are divided into migratory and resident birds. On one hand, migratory birds are the bird species that move from north to south to escape winter, while on the other, resident birds are the ones who choose to stay. 

The question is, why is this so? Why would there be birds that would choose to remain in the cold, knowing that they could freeze to death, and why are there birds that choose to migrate even if the journey can be dangerous. 

Those are the questions this article will answer. We’ll discuss here: 

  • Migratory Birds
  • Resident Birds
  • Why birds migrate
  • Why do some birds choose to stay
  • FAQs

If you want to finally get some answers on why some birds choose to leave and why some stay, read on…

Related article: 8 Bird Species That Migrate Incredible Distances 

Migratory Birds 

Bird migration is a regular seasonal movement where birds move from areas with low resources to areas with higher resources. The most common movement is from North to South, where northern populations of bird species (from Canada, Alaska, or Northern US) move further south for winter (Southern US, Mexico, Central America, South America). 

Birds that perform this movement are what we call migratory birds. 

As mentioned above, the movement is usually triggered by the availability of resources – food and nesting. At the same time, most of the birds need to move south to prevent the harsh winter weather. 

There are three types of migration known to birds: 

  • Short-distance Migrants: These are birds that make very small movements to migrate. These birds don’t move because of the changes in the weather, but they do move because of food. Therefore, this type of migration usually just involves changing elevations, such as higher to lower elevations.

Short-distance migratory birds include waxwings, finches, and American Robins. 

  • Medium-distance Migrants: This type of migration covers birds moving a few hundred miles away from their breeding areas. Low food resources and shelter usually trigger the birds’ movement. 

Medium-distance migratory birds include Eastern bluebird and Killdeer.

  • Long-distance Migrants: These birds typically travel longer distances, usually from breeding ranges to wintering grounds. There are around 350 species of North American birds that travel long distances to migrate. 

While short and medium-distance migratory birds move mainly because of food or shelter, long-distance migrants are different. They move because it’s what they evolved into, and it took a lot of practice of strength and endurance to cover such long flights. 

The birds would also usually need to develop quick responses to weather, excellent navigation skills, and stamina. 

Long-distance migratory birds include grosbeaks, Mourning Dove, and Ruby-throated hummingbirds.  

Similarly, there’s another type of migratory bird that’s not very common, and they are what we call the Nomadic or Irregular migrants. These birds don’t have a regular schedule of movement, and it’s mainly just triggered by the availability of food resources. 

Below, we list the most common migratory birds, their type of migration, and their breeding and winter ranges. 

The Most Common Migratory Birds

Bird SpeciesType of Migratory BirdBreeding and Winter Ranges
American GoldfinchShort-distance migrantsBreeding range: Saskatchewan, Quebec, and southwest Newfoundland
Winter range: California to Mexico, along the Gulf Coast, and throughout Florida
Purple FinchShort-distance migrantsBreeding range: Southern half of Canada; may be found in every province except in Nunavut
Winter range: Central and southeastern half of the United States 
American CrowShort-distance migrantsBreeding range: Southern half part of Canada
Winter range: Some parts of the United states
Mourning DoveLong-distance migrantsBreeding range: Southern Canada, throughout the United States, and south to Panama
Winter range: Mexico
Red-breasted NuthatchShort-distance migrant; sometimes irruptiveBreeding range: Southeast Alaska and southern parts of Canada
Winter range: Irregularly migrates to southern Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and northern Florida to the Gulf Coast. 
Ruby-throated HummingbirdMedium to long-distance migrantsBreeding range: eastern United States and southern Canada
Winter range: southern Mexico, Central America, and West Indies
American Tree SparrowMedium-distance migrantsBreeding range: Almost all of Alaska, Yukon and Northwest territories, very north of Manitoba and Ontario, Labrador, and northern Quebec
Winter range: small part of southern Canada and all of the United States except for states near the coast, states located 450 miles down south, and all of Florida
American RobinShort-distance migrantsBreeding range: Canada to the north slope of Alaska
Winter range: All of United States, sometimes reaching as far as southern Mexico, Gulf Coast, and Guatemala
Northern FlickerShort-distance migrantsBreeding range: Alaska, eastward to Quebec, and then south to the entire United States; some populations are found in Grand Cayman, Cuba, and highlands of Nicaragua
Winter range: Northern Mexico 
White-throated SparrowMedium-distance migrantsBreeding range: Northwestern Canada, eastward to Minnesota and the Great Lakes, and going south to New England
Winter range: eastern United States going to northern Mexico; small numbers migrate to West Oregon
Yellow-rumped WarblerShort to long-distance migrantsBreeding range: All of Alaska, stretching across Canada, and eastern half of the United States. 
Winter range: southern states to the West Indies and Central America; some birds move to the Pacific Coast for winter
Rose-breasted GrosbeakLong-distance migrantsBreeding range: From British Columbia in the west to the Canadian maritime provinces in the east, and going south to New Jersey, Appalachian Mountains through South Carolina, and going west to eastern Kansas, Nebraska, and Dakotas
Winter range: greater Antilles, coastal Mexico, Central America, sometimes reaching northern South America to eastern Peru and Guyana
Eastern BluebirdMedium-distance migrantsBreeding range: Half-eastern parts of the United States
Winter range: Southeastern US and Mexico
Brown ThrasherShort-distance migrants or partial migrantsBreeding range: southern Canada to east central Texas
Winter range: east central Texas
Dark-eyed JuncoMedium-distance migrantsBreeding range: Canada and Alaska
Winter range: southern United States and down south to Mexico, the Gulf Coast, and northern Florida
Purple MartinLong-distance migrantsBreeding range: North and Central America
Winter range: South America
Band-tailed PigeonMedium-distance migrantsBreeding range: Coastal parts of Eastern United States
Winter range: Central America, extending to as far as Argentina
Rufous HummingbirdLong-distance migrantsBreeding range: Washington state in the US northward to British Columbia, Canada
Winter range: Mexico
Baltimore OrioleMedium to long-distance migrantsBreeding range: Wisconsin to Maine and south to Central Mississippi and Alabama, northern Georgia, and western South Carolina and North Carolina
Winter range: Mexico to southern coast of the United States
Common GrackleShort-distance migrantsBreeding range: Far-northern US, Canada, and the Great Plains
Winter range: central and southern US
KilldeerMedium-distance migrantsBreeding range: Canada and Northern US
Winter range: Mexico, Central America, and northern parts of Colombia and Venezuela
Blue GrosbeakLong-distance migrantsBreeding range: southern parts of the United States
Winter range: Mexico and Central America
Indigo BuntingLong-distance migrantsBreeding range: eastern North America from the Great Plains; western United States including Utah, Arizona, and California
Winter range: Mexico, Central America, northern South America, and Caribbean
Arctic TernLong-distance migrantsBreeding range: Alaska
Winter range: Across the North Atlantic toward Europe and northern Africa before heading farther south to southern Australia, New Zealand, and Antarctica
Brown-headed CowbirdShort-distance migrantsBreeding range: Texas through the eastern US
Winter range: Most of US and Southern Canada
Cedar WaxwingShort to long distance migrantsBreeding range: southern half of Canada and the northern half of the United States
Winter range: United States, Mexico, and Central America as far as south as Panama
Bullock’s OrioleMedium-distance migrantsBreeding range: southern Canada, including Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Alberta, and Saskatchewan
Winter range: throughout Mexicofrom Sinaloa south and east through Central Mexico to Oaxaca 

Resident Birds

On the other hand, resident birds are birds that stay within their breeding range. They don’t move regardless of food availability or even because of the harsh weather conditions. Many bird watchers love resident birds and provide them food for winter to give color in the backyard. 

Below, we list down the most common resident birds and where you can find them. 

The Most Common Resident Birds

Bird SpeciesLocation
Black-capped ChickadeeConfined to North America, ranging from Alaska through the southern half of Canada and south to the upper two-thirds of the United States
Northern CardinalThroughout eastern and central North America, from southern Canada into parts of mexico and Central America
Red-bellied WoodpeckerEastern half of the United States; their range extends from the wooded portion of the Great Plain states to the Atlantic coast and from the Gulf of Mexico to southern portions of Ontario and northern Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, and New York 
Turkey VultureThroughout North America and South America
Carolina ChickadeeAll of Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina; northern half of Florida; eastern regions of Arkansas and Louisiana; central eastern and northern regions of Tennessee and North Carolina
Lewis’s WoodpeckerCalifornia, north to western Washington to northwestern Montana and the mountains of Colorado
Tufted TitmouseEastern half of Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas, a bit of Iowa, lower half of Wisconsin, and the range extends going east to lower part of Maine, and going south to northern part of Florida
Common GrackleCovers almost all of eastern North America east of the Rockies
White-breasted NuthatchAlmost all of North America covering most parts of the United States, Canada, and Mexico
House FinchOregon, Idaho, and northern Wyoming to California, New Mexico, and Mexico, eastward to the western portions of Nebraska, Kansas, and Texas
Carolina WrenAtlantic seashore to as far as west as Texas, Nebraska, Kansas, and eastern Oklahoma; bounded in the north by southern Michigan, New York and Massachusetts; some numbers are also recorded at the northeast corner of Mexico and Yucatan Peninsula
Anna’s HummingbirdWestern coast of North America
European StarlingSome parts of Alaska, and all of Canada and United States
Blue JaySouthern Canada; eastern parts of the US ranging bordering eastern parts of Texas, Colorado, Nebraska, South Dakota, and North Dakota going east to Maine and down south to Florida
Downy WoodpeckerThroughout North America, from southeastern Alaska east to Newfoundland, extending south to southern California and Florida
Hairy WoodpeckerAlaska to Newfoundland, south from northern Mexico to Florida
House SparrowCovers lower parts of Canada, all of United States, Mexico, Central America, and eastern half part of South America
Pileated WoodpeckerNova Scotia, New Brunswick, South Quebec, and Central Ontario, south to South Florida, and west eastern Texas and southeastern Oklahoma
Common RavenAll of Alaska and Canada, western parts of the US bordering Idaho, Utah, and Arizona, and then down to Mexico
Great Horned OwlSome parts of Alaska and Canada, all of United States, Mexico, and some areas in South America
MallardNorthern parts of the United States
Barred OwlSouthwestern Canada, Washington, Oregon, and northern California; range extends throughout eastern united States including Florida and Texas

Why Do Birds Migrate? 

As we continue to think about migratory vs resident birds, migration can be a difficult journey for birds. They meet a lot of hazards along the way, including storms, hunting, collisions, and even starvation when their stopover areas are out of food or shelter. 

Out of many birds that migrate, some birds don’t survive. So, the question is, why would many birds choose to migrate, knowing the dangers that might come to them? 

Well, it’s because these birds know that traveling miles away is less risky than staying in their breeding grounds for winter. On top of that, if no birds migrate, resources are depleted fast, and more birds won’t be able to survive. 

Here are several reasons why birds migrate: 

  1. Food: The number one trigger for birds to migrate is food. They move from areas where food is scarce to areas where food is abundant. This is a common reason for insect-eating birds as the supply of insects tends to be low once the temperature drops. 
  1. Family: Birds also migrate in the hopes of finding a better breeding environment for their young. With better breeding conditions, the chance of survival of their species is higher, which will also increase or stabilize their population. 
  1. Climate: Another obvious reason is that birds migrate because of the changing seasons. Some birds can’t handle too much cold and would choose to undergo a difficult journey if that means they can escape the harsh winter cold. 
  1. Predators: Birds also change locations to avoid predators. Again, this is a tactic that can increase their chances of survival, especially their young. 
  1. Disease: A large group of birds gathered in one place make them susceptible to parasites and diseases. If one bird catches a disease and there’s a large flock surrounding it, it’s only a matter of time until that disease spreads. But when birds disperse to different locations, the infection wouldn’t spread just as fast. 

Depending on their reason, birds migrate to increase their chance of survival. 

Below, we want to share with you some unbelievable journeys some birds have taken… 

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

Unbelievable Bird Journeys

  • Arctic Tern: These birds have taken the longest journey any bird has ever taken. They have traveled 71,000 km a year, flying from Greenland to Antarctica or from one side of the world to the other. 
  • Great Snipe: These birds are the fastest among all migrating birds. The bird flies as far as 6,800 km and at speeds of 95 kph. 
  • Bar-headed Geese: These birds fly the highest among all the other birds in the world. They can reach altitudes of over 8,500 meters. 
  • Bar-tailed Godwit: Nothing can beat these birds if we’re talking about endurance. These species can fly for over 11,000 km without any rest. The flight is estimated to be around eight days! 
  • Red Knot: Another impressive migration is done by the Red Knots. They fly around 15,000 km every year from the southern coasts of Chile and Argentina to the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. 

Why Do Some Birds Choose To Not Migrate? 

Now, if some birds can take a risk to travel long distances to increase their chances of survival, why would some birds choose to stay? Well, that’s because their chances of survival are higher if they stay. 

Here are some reasons why people choose not to migrate: 

  • Save Energy: Birds choose to stay to preserve their energy. They would rather use their energy to forage, protect themselves from predators, and keep themselves warm to survive the winter instead of traveling miles away to avoid it. 
  • Defend their territory: For these birds, maintaining their territories is very important. 

When they migrate to wintering ranges, it would mean that they would have to find a new area to nest or find shelter. But if they stay in their breeding ranges, they get to protect their breeding territory from any other birds that try to take it from them. 

  • Nurture their young: Some birds choose to stay to ensure that their young are well-taken care of. As some young birds are not yet ready to travel far, their parents choose to continue to care for them, even if that means they have to submit themselves to harsh weather conditions. 

How Do Resident Birds Survive? 

However, if birds choose to stay under harsh weather conditions, how do they survive? 

Well, first of all, birds are warm-blooded animals. This means that their normal body temperature is significantly higher than ours, which allows them to stay warm even if temperatures are already low. On top of this, their feathers are great insulators and keep them warm when temperatures go cold. 

Aside from physical adaptations, birds also have behavioral adaptations that increase their chances of survival. 

  • Fluffing: Birds fluff out their feathers which creates extra air pockets that provide additional insulation for them. This gives the birds a fat and puffy appearance that we may find cute, but the truth is, it keeps them warm. 
  • Tucking: This adaptation is mainly designed to help prevent the birds’ legs from getting frostbite. Some bird species hide one or both of their legs to shield them from extreme cold. Some even tuck their bills into their shoulders to breathe warm air into their bodies. 
  • Shivering: This action helps raise the bird’s temperature quickly. It’s a form of adaptation that uses up many of the birds’ calories, making it only a short-term solution for them. Therefore, it is only used when the temperature is freezing. 
  • Roosting: While most bird species are territorial during the breeding seasons, many choose to flock with other birds, especially if that means surviving. By roosting, birds are able to share their body heat with other birds, increasing the body temperature of each and therefore increasing their chances of survival. 
  • Torpor: Torpor is like hibernation for birds. It’s when they sleep for longer periods to preserve their energy during the cold winter nights. Birds undergoing torpor tend to lower their temperature to 50 degrees, which can be very dangerous for them as this can make them more vulnerable to predators. 

At the same time, birds doing torpor must immediately have access to food as soon as they wake up to replenish their energy. 

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Photo by Emiliano Arano on Pexels.com

FAQs on the Difference Between Migratory and Resident Birds

What’s the advantage of migration in birds? 

Bird migration increases the bird’s chances of survival. It helps them avoid the cold winter weather, allows them to go to an area with more food, or increases their chances of avoiding any big predators. 

In other words, birds migrate mainly for survival. 

What are the disadvantages of bird migration in birds?

Bird migration is not an easy journey. If anything else, it can be perilous, and birds can meet a lot of difficulties such as: 

  • Collisions
  • Storms
  • Hunters
  • Predators

What can I do to help migrating or non-migrating birds? 

Migrating or not, birds need the same things – food, water, and shelter. No matter where you are, and no matter what the season is, it’s important that you fill your bird feeders and make them available for birds. 

This way, migrating birds would be able to see them and have something to eat while they rest, or non-migrating birds will always have somewhere to go when they’re looking to replenish their energy, 

Final Thoughts on the Difference Between Migratory and Resident Birds 

Whether birds choose to travel or not, they all have one goal: survival. 

Migratory birds move to areas where resources are abundant to increase their chances of survival, while resident birds stay within their breeding range for survival, too. This technique is also ingenious for birds, as it helps distribute food resources equally to all of them. 

Gathering in one place just means faster depletion of resources. But moving from areas with lower resources to areas with abundant resources allows them to consume food in their wintering grounds while their breeding grounds recover and grow more food. 

This whole migration is a survival technique, and it’s really effective for birds. 


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