Why Do Some Birds Migrate While Others Don’t?

Updated: Nov. 23, 2021

During the spring and fall migration seasons, you may wonder why do some birds migrate while other birds like cardinals stay year round.

Why Do Birds Migrate?

Why Do Some Birds Migrate While Others Don't?©Rob Ripma
Black-throated green warblers migrate all the way to Central America.

Many birds are now making their way south to their wintering grounds. But, there are many other birds that choose not to migrate. Some birds like cardinals are content to stay in the north during the tough winter months. While this might seems strange, you have to consider why do birds migrate?

One of the first things to consider is that migration is mainly about the bird’s food source and not temperature. Many of these birds would be able to survive in cold temperatures if they were able to find food. Most birds that eat fruit or insects must move south in the winter in order to find enough food to survive. Many birds that eat seeds can find plenty of food over the winter months to survive.

In order to find enough food, birds make different kinds of migrations. Some birds only migrate very short distances such as from a higher elevation to a lower elevation. Others travel a bit farther such as to the southern United States, while others make the long journey to Central and South America.

How do hummingbirds survive snow and cold weather?

snowy day chickadeeCourtesy Joanne Klausner
Chickadees do not migrate south for the winter.

Birding experts Kenn and Kimberly Kaufman explain this further. “Birds are tougher than they look. Many can survive our Ohio winter temperatures and stay put if they are able to find food. Songbirds that migrate south tend to feed mainly on insects, which are scarce commodities in typical Midwestern winters. The birds that keep us company are the ones that survive on seeds, like cardinals and sparrows, and others like chickadees and woodpeckers that hunt for insect eggs or hibernating insects in bark. Adaptable omnivores such as crows and gulls, which eat just about anything, also stick around.”

Some common backyard birds, like American goldfinches and yellow-rumped warblers, stick around parts of the U.S. all winter. They’re just more difficult to spot because they molt into more subdued tones for the cold months, only sporting dull patches of yellow.

Why Do Some Birds Migrate While Others Don't?©Rob Ripma
Northern cardinals are a non-migratory species

Next, find out if robins migrate and return in the spring.