Can wind help explain seasonal differences in avian migration speed?


  • Michael U. Kemp,

  • Judy Shamoun-Baranes,

  • Hans Van Gasteren,

  • Willem Bouten,

  • E. Emiel Van Loon

M. U. Kemp (, J. Shamoun-Baranes, W. Bouten and E. E. van Loon, Computational Geo-Ecology, Institute for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Dynamics, Dept of Science, Univ. of Amsterdam, P.O. Box 94248, 1090 GE Amsterdam.– H. van Gasteren, Nature Bureau, Support Operations Branch, Directorate of Operations, Royal Netherlands Air Force, PO Box 8762, 4820 BB Breda, Netherlands.


A bird's ground speed is influenced by the wind conditions it encounters. Wind conditions, although variable, are not entirely random. Instead, wind exhibits persistent spatial and temporal dynamics described by the general circulation of the atmosphere. As such, in certain geographical areas wind's assistance (or hindrance) on migratory flight is also persistent, being dependent upon the bird's migratory direction in relation to prevailing wind conditions. We propose that, considering the western migration route of nocturnal migrants through Europe, winds should be more supportive in spring than in autumn. Thus, we expect higher ground speeds, contributing to higher overall migration speeds, in spring. To test whether winds were more supportive in spring than autumn, we quantified monthly wind conditions within western Europe relative to the seasonal direction of migration using 30 years (1978–2008) of wind data from the NCEP/NCAR Reanalysis dataset. We found that supporting winds were significantly more frequent for spring migration compared to autumn and up to twice as frequent at higher altitudes. We then analyzed three years (2006–2008) of nocturnal migratory ground speeds measured with radar in the Netherlands which confirmed higher ground speeds in spring than autumn. This seasonal difference in ground speed suggests a 16.9% increase in migration speed from autumn to spring. These results stress the importance of considering the specific wind conditions experienced by birds when interpreting migration speed. We provide a simple methodological approach enabling researchers to quantify regional wind conditions for any geographic area and time period of interest.