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Waterfowl arriving in California's Central Valley, a staging point on the Pacific Flyway Graylodgewildlifearea.jpg
Waterfowl arriving in California's Central Valley, a staging point on the Pacific Flyway

A flyway is a flight path used by large numbers of birds while migrating between their breeding grounds and their overwintering quarters. Flyways generally span continents and often pass over oceans. Although applying to any species of migrating bird, the concept was first conceived and applied to waterfowl and shore birds. The flyways can be thought of as wide arterial highways to which the migratory routes of different species are tributaries. [1] An alternative definition is that a flyway is the entire range of a migratory bird, encompassing both its breeding and non-breeding grounds, and the resting and feeding locations it uses while migrating. [2] There are four major north/south flyways in North America and six covering Eurasia, Africa and Australasia.



The passing of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 in the United States resulted in a need for more information on bird migration. Frederick Charles Lincoln was put in charge and improved methods for trapping and banding, developed record-keeping procedures, recruited banders, fostered international cooperation, and promoted banding as a tool for research and wildlife management. He found it was possible to establish the routes used by waterfowl during their annual migrations and he developed the flyway concept, a key idea in the management and regulation of hunting of migratory birds; by establishing the routes used, estimates of population sizes could be made and suitable protection could be put in place. [3]

The Saloum Delta in Senegal, on the East Atlantic Flyway Saloum.gif
The Saloum Delta in Senegal, on the East Atlantic Flyway

The special vulnerability of waterfowl and shorebirds on their international migrations, with their specific needs for suitable wetland stopovers, resulted in the signing of the Ramsar Convention in 1971. As a result, over 2300 Ramsar sites have been established around the world, many being situated on flyways where they provide the vital habitat needed by the birds on their journeys. [4]


"The concept of flyway is essentially an operational concept
linked to waterfowl whose populations one wishes
to manage over their entire migration space."

—Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals. [5]

Many bird populations migrate long distances twice a year. The most common pattern involves flying north in the spring to breed in the temperate parts of the northern hemisphere or the Arctic during summer and returning southward in the autumn to wintering grounds in warmer regions, often on the other side of the equator. A similar pattern occurs in the southern hemisphere with birds flying south to breed and north to overwinter, but on a much smaller scale. The flyway, or route, taken by different bird species varies, but each population has its traditional staging points along the route where birds feed to build up their energy reserves to prepare for the next migratory stage; the route used on the spring migration may be different from that used in the autumn and will depend on such factors as wind direction and the availability of food at staging points. [6]

Flyways may not be the shortest route available but may have curves or doglegs. Birds of different species may follow similar routes, and populations from one area may merge with other groups and diverge to reach different destinations. Flyways tend to avoid obstacles such as mountain ranges and oceans, running parallel to the barriers and following routes along the coast or along major river valleys. Passerines often fly on a broader front across the terrain, either flying over or circumventing obstacles on the route, according to their evolutionary adaptations. [7] In selecting routes, birds may overcompensate for predicted winds. [8] Terrestrial birds tend to travel over land, raptors need routes where thermals can give them the lift they require, sea birds prefer ocean routes and wetland birds need routes with suitable staging sites; deltas and coastal wetlands provide reliable food sources for this purpose whereas inland wetlands are less predictable. [6]

Flyways of the Americas

Flyway distribution for N. American waterfowl: Atlantic, Mississippi, Central, and Pacific Flyways. Waterfowlflywaysmap.png
Flyway distribution for N. American waterfowl: Atlantic, Mississippi, Central, and Pacific Flyways.

The Atlantic Flyway starts in northern Canada and Greenland and follows the Atlantic coast of Canada and the United States to the Caribbean Sea, and on to tropical South America. [1]

The Mississippi Flyway starts from northeastern Canada and passes over the Great Lakes, following the lower Ohio River, the Missouri and the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico, and on to Central and South America. There are no mountain barriers on this route. [6]

The Central Flyway starts from central Canada and crosses the Great Plains before continuing southwards to the Gulf of Mexico, merging with the Mississippi Flyway. There are no mountain barriers on this route. [1]

The Pacific Flyway is a north-south flyway for birds migrating from breeding grounds in Alaska and Canada to their overwintering areas in South America, some species travelling as far south as Patagonia. [6]

The Allegheny Front flyway in the central Appalachian Mountains is an important flyway for migratory birds traveling from their northern breeding grounds to their southern wintering sites. [9]

Flyways of Eurasia, Africa, and Australasia

Central Asian, East Asian-Australasian and West Pacific migratory bird flyways Central Asian Flyway Map.png
Central Asian, East Asian-Australasian and West Pacific migratory bird flyways

The East Atlantic Flyway starts from northern North America, Greenland, Iceland, northern Europe and western Siberia and leads to wintering areas in western Europe and North Africa, with some birds continuing down the west coast of the continent to South Africa. [6]

The Black Sea-Mediterranean Flyway starts from northern and western Siberia and leads across Asia, the Black Sea and the Mediterranean Sea to northern Africa. Little has been published about birds using this flyway. [6]

The Asian–East African Flyway starts from the northern breeding grounds of water birds in Siberia and leads across Asia to East Africa. Little has been published about birds using this flyway. [6]

The Central Asian Flyway starts from the northern breeding grounds of water birds in Siberia and leads across Asia to the Indian subcontinent. Little has been published about birds using this flyway. [6]

The East Asian–Australasian Flyway starts at the Taymyr Peninsula in Russia and Alaska and extends southwards to southeastern Asia, Australia and New Zealand. This flyway overlaps with the West Pacific Flyway. About 60 species of shorebird use this route. [6]

The West Pacific Flyway links New Zealand and the east coast of Australia, through the central Pacific Ocean and the east coast of northern Asia, including Japan and the Korean Peninsula, ending up in eastern Siberia, including the Chukchi and Kamchatka Peninsulas, and Alaska. This flyway overlaps with the East Asian–Australasian Flyway. [6]

Related Research Articles

Bird migration movement of birds

Bird migration is the regular seasonal movement, often north and south along a flyway, between breeding and wintering grounds. Many species of bird migrate. Migration carries high costs in predation and mortality, including from hunting by humans, and is driven primarily by availability of food. It occurs mainly in the northern hemisphere, where birds are funneled on to specific routes by natural barriers such as the Mediterranean Sea or the Caribbean Sea.

Curlew sandpiper species of bird

The curlew sandpiper is a small wader that breeds on the tundra of Arctic Siberia. The genus name is from Ancient Greek kalidris or skalidris, a term used by Aristotle for some grey-coloured waterside birds. The specific ferruginea is from Latin ferrugo, ferruginis, "iron rust" referring to its colour in breeding plumage.

Eighty Mile Beach beach along the north-west coast of Western Australia about half-way between the towns of Broome and Port Hedland

Eighty Mile Beach, also spelled Eighty-mile Beach or 80-mile Beach, lies along the north-west coast of Western Australia about half-way between the towns of Broome and Port Hedland. It is a beach some 220 kilometres (140 mi) in length, forming the coastline where the Great Sandy Desert approaches the Indian Ocean. It is one of the most important sites for migratory shorebirds, or waders, in Australia, and is recognised as a wetland of international importance under the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands.

Mississippi Flyway

The Mississippi Flyway is a bird migration route that generally follows the Mississippi, Missouri, and Lower Ohio Rivers in the United States across the Great Lakes to the Mackenzie River and Hudson Bay in Canada. The main endpoints of the flyway include central Canada and the region surrounding the Gulf of Mexico. The migration route tends to narrow considerably in the lower Mississippi River valley in the states of Missouri, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana, which accounts for the high number of bird species found in those areas. Some birds use this flyway to migrate from the Arctic Ocean to Patagonia.

Agreement on the Conservation of African-Eurasian Migratory Waterbirds

The Agreement on the Conservation of African-Eurasian Migratory Waterbirds, or African-Eurasian Waterbird Agreement (AEWA) is an independent international treaty developed under the auspices of the United Nations Environment Programme's Convention on Migratory Species. It was founded to coordinate efforts to conserve bird species migrating between European and African nations, and its current scope stretches from the Arctic to South Africa, encompassing the Canadian archipelago and the Middle East as well as Europe and Africa.

Atlantic Flyway

The Atlantic Flyway is a major north-south flyway for migratory birds in North America. The route generally starts in Greenland, then follows the Atlantic coast of Canada, then south down the Atlantic Coast south to the tropical areas of South America and the Caribbean. Every year, migratory birds travel up and down this route following food sources, heading to breeding grounds, or travelling to overwintering sites.

Zhalong Nature Reserve protected area

Zhalong Nature Preserve is a wetland reserve in Heilongjiang province, China.

East Asian–Australasian Flyway

The East Asian–Australasian Flyway is one of the world's great flyways. At its northernmost it stretches eastwards from the Taimyr Peninsula in Russia to Alaska. Its southern end encompasses Australia and New Zealand. Between these extremes the Flyway covers much of eastern Asia, including China, Japan, Korea, South-East Asia and the western Pacific. It is especially important for the millions of migratory waders or shorebirds that breed in northern Asia and Alaska and spend the non-breeding season in South-East Asia and Australasia. In total, the flyway passes through 22 countries with approximately 55 migratory species travelling along it, equating to about 5 million birds.

The Alaksen National Wildlife Area is located on Westham Island in the Corporation of Delta, in the province of British Columbia, Canada. It is an important stopover point for many species of birds migrating along the Pacific Flyway.

Miranda Naturalists Trust

The Miranda Naturalists' Trust is a charitable trust, that established and maintains the Miranda Shorebird Centre, located at Miranda on the western shore of the Firth of Thames on the North Island of New Zealand. The Miranda Naturalists' Trust (MNT) was formed in 1975 to encourage people to visit the coastline and appreciate its wide range of flora and fauna. The trust promotes education and public awareness of coastal ecology, shorebird research and conservation. Work done by the trust, to increase knowledge of shorebird migration, includes bird banding, research and data exchange. The Shorebird Centre has information displays on waders and a library and helps raise funds for the trust's work through their shop sales and visitor accommodation.

Quill Lakes group of lakes in Canada

The Quill Lakes is a wetland complex in Saskatchewan, Canada that encompasses the endorheic basin of three distinct lake wetlands: Big Quill Lake, Middle Quill Lake and Little Quill Lake. On May 27, 1987, it was designated a wetland of international importance via the Ramsar Convention. It was the first Canadian site in the North American Waterfowl Management Plan, is a site in the International Biological Programme and Saskatchewan Heritage Marsh Program, and was designated a Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network site of International significance in May, 1994. The site is an important staging and breeding area for spring and fall migration of shorebirds. The site qualifies as an Important Bird Area for its globally and nationally significant migratory and breeding populations of more than a dozen species of birds.

Marys Point

Mary's Point is a 12 square kilometres (4.6 sq mi) wetland in Albert County, New Brunswick, Canada. It is at the head of the Bay of Fundy, just outside the small community of Harvey and approximately 40 km (25 mi) south of Moncton. Designated a Ramsar wetland of international importance on May 24, 1982, it is also part of the Fundy biosphere reserve established in 2007, which also contains the Shepody Bay wetland. It was also the first Canadian site in the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve, as part of the Bay of Fundy Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve. It is within the Shepody Bay National Wildlife Area, which is administered by the Canadian Wildlife Service.

Poda Protected Area Nature reserve in Bulgaria

The nature conservation site Poda was declared a protected area in 1989 by the Bulgarian Ministry of Water and Environment. It was the first protected area in Bulgaria that is completely managed and maintained by a non-governmental organization, the Bulgarian Society for the Protection of Birds(BSPB). BSPB prepares and implements activities adopted by the Council of Minister's Management Plan, but receives its funding completely from entrance fees, souvenirs sold, and donations. Through this arrangement, it aims to be a sustainable model for nature conservation, environmental education, and eco-tourism.

Central Asian Flyway organization

The Central Asian Flyway (CAF), Central Asian-Indian Flyway, or Central Asian-South Asian Flyway is a flyway covering a large continental area of Eurasia between the Arctic Ocean and the Indian Ocean and the associated island chains. The CAF comprises several important migration routes of waterbirds, most of which extend from the northernmost breeding grounds in Siberia to the southernmost non-breeding wintering grounds in West Asia, India, the Maldives and the British Indian Ocean Territory.

The San Luis National Wildlife Refuge Complex is located in the northern San Joaquin Valley, within Merced County and Stanislaus County of California. The complex, with four federal National Wildlife Refuges, is managed by the U.S Fish & Wildlife Service.

Cheyenne Bottoms

Cheyenne Bottoms is a wetland in the central Great Plains of North America. Occupying approximately 41,000 acres in central Kansas, it is the largest wetland in the interior United States. The Bottoms is a critical stopping point on the Central Flyway for millions of birds which migrate through the region annually.

The Asian – East African Flyway is a group of well-established routes by which many species of birds migrate annually between mid-Palearctic breeding grounds in Asia and non-breeding sites in eastern and southern Africa.

Siberian Crane Memorandum of Understanding

The Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) Concerning Conservation Measures for the Siberian Crane is a Multilateral Environmental Memorandum of Understanding and came into effect on 1 July 1993 and was amended in January 1999. It was the first MoU to be concluded under the auspices of the Convention on Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS), also known as the Bonn Convention, and focuses on conserving the Siberian crane as one of the three rarest crane species. The MoU covers twelve range states. As of August 2012, eleven range states have signed the MoU.

Last Mountain Lake Bird Sanctuary is a National Historic Site of Canada, located in the rural municipality of Last Mountain Valley No. 250 in Saskatchewan. The migratory bird sanctuary was the first established in North America. The 47.36-square-kilometre (18.29 sq mi) area is within the Last Mountain Lake National Wildlife Area, an International Biological Program site, and includes adjacent uplands.

The Black Sea–Mediterranean Flyway is a group of well-established routes by which many bird species of migrate annually between Palearctic breeding grounds in northern Europe and Asia, and non-breeding habitats in southern Europe and Africa.


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  3. Gabrielson, Ira N. (1962). "Frederick Charles Lincoln Obituary". The Auk. 79 (3): 495–499. doi:10.2307/4082843. JSTOR   4082843.
  4. "Ramsar sites information service" . Retrieved 11 May 2019.
  5. CMS Secretariat, 32nd Meeting of the Standing Committee (8–9 November 2007). Strategic Review of Flyway Paper (PDF). Bonn: UNEP/CMS Secretariat. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2011-06-11. Retrieved 2009-01-07.
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  8. Vansteelant, Wouter M.G.; Shamoun-Baranes, Judy; van Manen, Willem; van Diermen, Jan; Bouten, Willem (2017). "Seasonal detours by soaring migrants shaped by wind regimes along the East Atlantic Flyway". Journal of Animal Ecology. 86 (2): 179–191. doi:10.1111/1365-2656.12593. PMID   27757959.
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