Get access

Migration timing and its determinants for nocturnal migratory birds during autumn migration



  1. Migration is a common strategy used by birds that breed in seasonal environments, and multiple environmental and biological factors determine the timing of migration. How these factors operate in combination during autumn migration, which is considered to be under weaker time constraints relative to spring migration, is not clear.
  2. Here, we examine the patterns and determinants of migration timing for nocturnal migrants during autumn migration in the north-eastern USA using nocturnal reflectivity data from 12 weather surveillance radar stations and modelled diurnal probability of occurrence for 142 species of nocturnal migrants. We first model the capacity of seasonal atmospheric conditions (wind and precipitation) and ecological productivity (vegetation greenness) to predict autumn migration intensity. We then test predictions, formulated under optimal migration theory, on how migration timing should be related to assemblage-level estimates of body size and total migration distance within the context of dietary guild (insectivore and omnivore) and level of dietary plasticity during autumn migration.
  3. Our results indicate seasonal declines in ecological productivity delineate the beginning and end of peak migration, whose intensity is best predicted by the velocity of winds at migration altitudes. Insectivorous migrants departed earlier in the season and, consistent with our predictions, large-bodied and long-distance insectivorous migrants departed the earliest. Contrary to our predictions, large-bodied and some long-distance omnivorous migrants departed later in the season, patterns that were replicated in part by insectivorous migrants that displayed dietary plasticity during autumn migration.
  4. Our findings indicate migration timing in the region is dictated by optimality strategies, modified based on the breadth and flexibility of migrant's foraging diets, with declining ecological productivity defining possible resource thresholds during which migration occurs when winds at migration altitudes are mild. These observations provide the basis to assess how avian migration strategies may be affected by adjustments in seasonal patterns of atmospheric circulation and ecological productivity that may occur under global climate change.