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Do birds migrate from east to west in Europe?

Sent in by Majd riad Abu Sada, Palestine

The principal direction of migration for British breeding songbirds is north-south. In the northern hemisphere, a northerly movement occurs during spring as birds return to breeding grounds in more temperate climes. During autumn, the movement is southerly, to regions where the climate is more suitable and food is more abundant.

Young birds require a diet that is rich in protein in order to develop feathers and muscles. This protein is not available in seeds and most fruit, so by migrating to areas where there is an abundance of protein-rich insects, there are clearly benefits for many species. It is perhaps not surprising that many European summer migrants are insectivorous.

Although the general direction of migration is north-south, there is a south-westerly or south-easterly bias between individual species. For example, the British population of lesser whitethroat undertakes a south-easterly migration to eastern Africa and the Arabian Gulf regions during the autumn, whereas the similar and closely related common whitethroat migrates on more of a south-westerly bearing, wintering in the western Sahara and east to Sudan (Urban et al 1997).

In the northern hemisphere, the main exchange of species between continents occurs with European breeding birds wintering in Africa and to a lesser extent, Asia. Some seabirds, notably the Manx shearwater, may make it to the eastern seaboard of South America. An exceptional example of inter-continental migration is the bar-tailed godwit. A bird was satellite-tracked from its wintering grounds in New Zealand to breeding territory in Alaska – a flight of some 11,500 kilometres.

Within Europe, the blackcap will migrate during the autumn months on a north-westerly setting from breeding grounds in south-eastern Europe to spend the winter in Britain and the low countries.

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