Everything You Should Know About Waterfowl Migrations

Everything You Should Know About Waterfowl Migrations

Nothing is more aggravating than visiting your normal hunting ground, in the right season, and wondering where all the waterfowl have gone.

It can happen to the best of us if we’re not paying attention to migration patterns.

Waterfowl migrations are still being examined by scientists because we don’t have all the answers yet.

What we do know can be extremely helpful to the hopeful hunter that’s trying to make their first kill of the season.

From migration patterns, weather conditions, direction and more let’s delve deep into the subject and give you a better positioning strategy the next time you go hunting.

We’ll also briefly talk about the effects of climate change on animal behavior, and the way that everything we’ve known about immigration is shifting.

Do Waterfowl Even Migrate?

Waterfowl Migration

Yes, most waterfowl migrate every single year.

Since most ducks are found in the midwest and the northern US, you’re going to run into a lot of species that can survive a few chills but can’t survive winter.

Once the going gets tough, the waterfowl get going.

Apart from their own survival, ducks won’t lay eggs in this type of weather.

It would freeze the egg and kill their offspring, so it’s not a viable option even if they wanted to stay.

Ducks can also move a lot faster than you think, under the right circumstances.

Migration times can vary because of this.

Waterfowl can travel in short bursts at night, as the cold comes down from the north, or they can go as much as 700 miles throughout a single day.

For some context, that means they could go from New Hampshire down to northern Florida in about two days. That’s a lot of distance.

What Direction to Ducks Migrate?

There are two migrations.

During winter, ducks will migrate south to warmer climates. This is where they may lay eggs and hatch their young, though it’s not common.

The reason it’s not common is that then they’re going to travel back north specifically for the breeding season once the winter is over.

They’ll lay their eggs and hatch most of them up north.

The funny thing is, migration is completely learned. There’s a little bit of innate instinct, but ducks learn to migrate from other ducks.

If you ever see a young duck flying solo and kind of doing circles in the sky, it’s because it has no clue where its flock I and it’s trying to find them.

How do Ducks Migrate?

Ducks Migration

During migration, they get everywhere they need to by flying.

They only stop to drink or eat in open fields, but all of their actual progress in migrating south for the winter comes from flying.

If ducks get too cold, they can still fly, but it’s a lot harder for them.

Occasionally, some ducks will get left behind, and during extreme cold fronts in the north, they may die from the temperatures before migrating.

It’s not common, but it can happen.

Ducks tend to fly in V formations through the sky. It’s actually pretty crazy as to why: they’re banking on each other’s wind resistance.

Do you know how a V formation always looks a bit off?

That’s because the birds in front are at the lowest point of the formation, and each bird behind them flies just a little bit higher.

V formations also allow these ducks to communicate with each other through quacking.

This could be done to signal to others that it’s time to rest, or that there’s a predatory bird nearby.

The linear structure of a V keeps them all focused and looking ahead of them.

During this time, ducks may spot landmarks to try and remember their paths.

Since migration is built into their instincts, it’s pretty easy for them to do this.

There’s a fair amount of research that also points towards the likelihood of ducks flying based on the alignment of the stars.

They use the location of the stars to determine where they are in the world and find true south or true north based on this.

What is Flyway?

Migration Birds

Flyways are like channels in the sky that birds end up flying in.

It’s quite remarkable because it’s a blend of their instincts kicking in, but there’s also more to it than that.

Flyways have been modified by humans, sort of.

We have a 70-year-old map that tells us the four main flyways, which include: Atlantic, Pacific, Central, and Mississippi.

We’ve observed these four flyways over time and come to the conclusion that birds are teaching each other this behavior, but they’re also going off of some level of instinct as well.

Which Flyway Has the Most Ducks?

There are maps in place, but every season is different, so it’s difficult to judge.

We’ve been seeing a lower number of duck hunters over the last few years, which is a real shame.

Based on the decline and reports of duck and geese populations rising, it stands that at this time, the Central flyway is the most plentiful for ducks.

However, you might find that the Mississippi flyway is actually the best for geese if that’s what you’re looking to hunt. Their migratory patterns can be a little different.

The main reason for this is because we tend to see the cold creep in closer toward the northeast than the northwest, so the migration in the northeast all comes crashing down the coastline at once.

In the midwest, that cold front creeps in a little slower, which breaks up the migration patterns just a little bit.

Technically, These Are the Best States for  Duck Hunting

Based on flyways and what we know about migration, there are a few states that you should consider hunting in when the season rolls around.

Seattle, Washington

City Of Seattle

Wide-open and brimming with tons of waterfowl in the early migration season, Seattle is where it all starts for the Pacific flyway (at least in America).

At the beginning of the migration season, you’ll see a lot of waterfowl migrating down from Canada. It’s a prime time to hunt.

Venice, Louisiana

Rivers, marshes, and a lot of waterfowl that constantly fly overhead during their migration pattern.

There are plenty of spots here for waterfowl to stop in the middle of their migration and get a drink, giving you a lot of hideouts to choose from.

Stuttgart, Arkansas

Nobody hunts like they do in Arkansas (you might even be reading this from there right now).

Arkansas saw some of the highest bird numbers in 2017 and 2018, and as a result, they’re one of the top states for hunting.

Even if you don’t border Arkansas, you owe it to yourself to plan a trip here and hunt at least once.

Because of the way some flyways intersect, you get a mixed amount of game here depending on the season.

Salt Lake City, Utah

Mountains Of Salt Lake City

There are literally millions of waterfowl here every year, from a few dozen species (and even more subspecies).

Because of the wide-open fields, there’s absolutely no shortage of waterfowl.

You’re able to see for miles, so if it’s not a good day for hunting, you’ll be able to tell right away.

A lot of migrating birds will stop here on their way further south.

San Francisco Bay, California

California is surprisingly great for hunting.

While they’re only getting the Pacific flyway, that’s plenty to get some good game coming down from the north.

You’ve got thousands of acres to hunt on, and a couple of dozen species of waterfowl to hunt all through the year.

You might actually find that the lenient waterfowl hunting seasons are a reason to vacation here in the future.

Chesapeake Bay, Maryland

Maryland has so many rivers flowing through it that it’s insane.

All of those rivers give excellent spots for waterfowl to roost, and to stop while flying overhead from the Atlantic flyway.

You can get a good couple of weeks here where you’re almost guaranteed to walk away with a few kills.

Do Ducks Migrate at Night?

Ducks Flying By Night

Yes, ducks and other waterfowl primarily migrate at night.

However, it’s not the only time that they migrate.

Duck marshes and ponds are actually brimming with activity late at night, which is why it’s not uncommon to get the best possible return on your hunt from early morning hunts.

They’re tired; they want to rest in the AM.

But there are a lot of conditions that affect their migration. Let’s go through them all and discuss the difference between local and national movement.

Energy Levels

This is directly related to the time of day, so we’ll cover it first. If ducks are tired, they’re only going to make short, localized movements.

They’re not going to spend four to six hours flying south.

Ducks tend to sleep during the early morning when predators are still sleeping, but that’s a good time for you to get a one-up on them in the field. Weather will affect their energy levels.

Weather Conditions

Extreme snow or extreme rain is going to change the normal migration patterns of most waterfowl.

It’s the same as with humans: you don’t see quite so many of us out when there’s really bad weather.

This could mean that you’ll find duck and geese congregating in fields, or they could be in hiding.

If the weather’s bad enough, you shouldn’t be out there either, but you should account for it when looking at migration maps.


Duck Flying On Wind

On windy days, they’ll just lie low in the fields together and huddle up. That’s of course if it’s super windy out.

Ducks will fly when there’s a slight wind, but they’re also pretty lightweight and don’t have the best resistance.

This means one of two things: you’re not going to see any ducks today on your hunt, or you’re going to find an absolute ton of them. It’s going to go one way or the other.


If their habitat is particularly difficult to live in, they may migrate early when frost starts to hit.

Habitats change, and the first frost can be a week earlier than usual.

That’s why you have to stay up-to-date through duck hunting apps and weather apps, so you can be prepared when they begin to migrate, and get your shotgun ready just a little early.


Not every breed of duck travels at the same time.

There are 2.7 million subspecies of goose alone, and plenty of duck subspecies—some of them are more insulated than others and have the ability to stay in colder areas for longer.

They still travel in flocks and fly together, but it’s just a different approach.

Where Can I Find Accurate Migration Maps?

Ducks Migration Map

Migration maps are super important, especially with the next subject on the docket.

Thankfully, there are so many resources available to help you out.

For one, ducks.org has a great up-to-date migration map.

By map, I mean it’s different inputs that hunters around the United States make during duck hunting season.

They’ll report a ton of information as well, such as stories on different goose numbers each season, and other waterfowl migration info.

Another excellent online tool is Waterfowl Tracker, which gives you up-to-date satellite-based information on mallards, snow geese, Canada geese, and even other types of ducks.

They’re able to track a lot of information, and you can even submit user-generated reports if you’d like. It’s kind of how the community on this site keeps going.

How is Climate Change Affecting Waterfowl Migration?

As the global temperature rises, it’s signaling later migration at times, and sooner migrations at times.

It’s messing up birds’ migration patterns.

We’ve seen cold surges come in from the north with unprecedented temperatures, which can tell waterfowl “Hey, it’s time to go now.”

They’re going to listen to the way the temperature affects them.

The same goes for heat surges.

It can tell ducks the opposite, such as “Hey, we can stay here for a while,” but then the surge ends and the cold season comes in hot on its heels.

It can really throw off the migratory patterns.

Are Migration Patterns Changing?

Duck Migration Patterns

We talked about the flyways and the way climate change is impacting duck migration.

Well, their migratory patterns could be changing over the next few years as well.

Patterns are changing, but not because of any anomaly—it’s temperature and weather-driven behavior, so if it’s snowing, ducks are going to move.

If there’s a cold snap, they’re going to move even faster. Their migration patterns will differ each year.

There are a lot of hunters in the mid-latitude areas of the United States saying that they’re noticing ducks showing up later at the beginning of each season, but in some instances, they’re leaving at the same time every season, which is quite baffling.

We know a lot about migration patterns, but not everything.

There’s always going to be a few variables to consider, but for now, stick to the weather as your number one indication of changes in migratory behavior.

There’s More Game Than Ever Before

Way back when people were hunting ducks for food.

Now, it’s mostly just seen as a sport.

There’s a large opposition against hunting, so we’re seeing these newer generations opting for other hobbies or activities.

Hunter’s numbers are going down.

Between hunting licenses pulled from multiple states that are normally huge for duck hunting, there’s a lower average number of hunters than we’ve seen in years.

Technically, since the bird populations are up, it’s just freeing up the skies for guys like you and me.

You now have a less likely chance of running into another hunter, making it a little easier to secure your spot in a field or marsh.

However, it could point to local hunting shops closing in the coming years, leaving us at the mercy of online retailers without another option.

I just want to leave this here because, even with higher bird populations and more plentiful migration seasons, it’s still something that could negatively impact us hunters.

Better Equipped for Waterfowl Hunting

It’s impossible to have all the answers, but with the answers that we do have, you’ll be able to better equip yourself for your next waterfowl hunt.

Understanding migration patterns, weather, and the way they’re all changing as time goes on are important when planning out your scouting spot.

Remember to account for landscape, recent wildfires in nearby areas, and land development within a 10-mile radius for reasons that an old hunting spot might not be producing enough waterfowl anymore.

It might be time to move to a new spot, or you’ve just come in-between migrations.

You just need to know the difference.

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