The Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations and the World Organization for Animal Health have called for a better understanding of the role that migrating birds may play in spreading H5N1 highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI). Bird banding, traditionally used in studies of migration, is limited by low recapture rates. Telemetry can only be applied to larger species and a limited number of birds. We show that analyses of multiple stable isotopes (δ13C, δ15N, δ18O and δD) can provide an understanding of the number of breeding populations represented at large congregations of wintering birds, probable locations of these breeding populations, and which breeding populations do not contribute migrants to a wintering site. As Asia is thought to be the origin of many HPAI strains and the center of their evolution, and as bird migration is poorly understood in this part of the world, we recommend that, in addition to banding, satellite, and VHF telemetry, the stable isotope analysis of migration patterns should become a part of long-term surveillance studies. Copyright © 2008 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.