North American Migration Patterns

Migratory waterfowl in North America cover thousands of miles annually as they travel from the prairie pothole region in the north-central portion of the continent to their wintering grounds in the southern United States.  During this migration, waterfowl encounter many different environments that each face their own unique challenges as a result of climate change.  


These birds follow distinct flight paths called flyways as they travel south to their wintering grounds.  The four major flyways in North America are the Pacific, Central, Mississippi, and Atlantic.  During the summer, the vast majority of the Mississippi flyway birds nest in the prairie pothole region, which is the largest nesting grounds for migratory waterfowl in North America.  This region covers the vast prairie of Canada and portions of North and South Dakota, along with eastern Montana.  During the winter months, these same birds populate the southern Mississippi River Valley and Delta, along with the Gulf of Mexico coast. 


Prairie Pothole Region

The Northern Great Plains are home to the North American Prairie Pothole Region, which is the most important region for migratory waterfowl in North America.  The potholes, which are small wetlands, exist in a landscape of grasslands and agriculture. The overall region covers a vast area of approximately 250,000 square miles (Dalton Westberg, 2017).  This region is optimal habitat for breeding waterfowl, who use the grasslands for nesting and forage the wetlands for food (Westberg, 2017).  It is estimated that nearly 70% of the wetlands have been lost in the region, with 84% of this loss attributed to agricultural development (Muhammad et al, 2018).  This loss further heightens the importance of the Prairie Pothole Region due to the significant losses it has already suffered.  

Map from the fourth National Climate Assessment showing the increase in days over 90 degrees in the northern plains.



Extreme heat will accelerate the evaporation of wetland areas and diminish the health of the grasslands.  This will lead to smaller spring broods and a decrease in successful nesting pairs.  The pothole region is responsible for roughly 50% to 80% of North America’s migratory waterfowl (Westberg, 2017).  Due to the importance of the region, these factors will slow the reproductive rate of North America’s waterfowl significantly. 


Upper Mississippi River

The Upper Mississippi River supports an estimated 36% of all continental migrating waterfowl in North America (Kenna et al, 2017).  Perhaps the largest threat to waterfowl using the Mississippi River for migration is the risk of parasitic infection.  The snail Bithynia tentaculata was first discovered in the Upper Mississippi River in 2002 (J. P. Peirce, 2016).  The snail harbors an invasive parasite that is responsible for waterfowl mortality outbreaks on the river annually.  The parasite infects diving waterfowl, who eat its carrier the Bithynia snail.  Upon ingestion, the birds can die within three to eight days from blood loss, shock, or stomach infection (Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge, 2017).  




Normally, the waterfowl only briefly stop in the infected region of the Upper Mississippi River during their annual migration.  This limits their contact with the infected snail and thus the parasites as well.  However, due to a trend in warmer winters, the upper portion of the river does not experience as long a period of ice cover (Peirce, 2018).  This results in the migrating waterfowl staging in the infected region for longer periods of time, leading to increasing annual mortalities. 

Map highlighting the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife Refuge, part of area affected by parasites.


Mississippi River Delta

The Mississippi River delta is a crucial wintering ground for millions of migratory waterfowl each year.  Sea level rise poses a significant threat to waterfowl who rely on the marshes of southern Louisiana for habitat following their annual migration south.  Between 1932 and 2016, Louisiana lost over 2,006 square miles of land due to rising sea levels (NCA Coastal Regions, 2018).  This presents a major threat to waterfowl and the biodiversity of the marshes in the region.  

Map from the USGS of the Mississippi River Delta.  The region highlighted in red lies less than five feet above sea level.





The rate of land loss to sea level rise is the equivalent of losing an area the size of a football field every 34 to 100 minutes (NCA Coastal Regions, 2018).  Freshwater is imperative for the survival of migratory waterfowl.  The aquatic vegetation and habitat that the marshes of the Mississippi delta provide are lost when saltwater intrudes further inland. 


Adaptation Opportunities

Waterfowl naturally adapt to changes in climate through migratory patterns.  Although these patterns have largely stayed the same, climate change may force them to change.  Waterfowl will likely migrate further northward to find suitable breeding habitat as prairie wetland depressions are diminished.  Waterfowl also will likely not travel as far south as the lower 48 freeze line creeps northward.  This means that the Mississippi River Delta will become less prominent due to sea-level rise and the decreasing need to travel so far southward.  The upper Mississippi will likely increasingly act as a wintering ground rather than a staging area for southward migration. 

The only clear plan specifically for preserving waterfowl habitat is the Federal Conservation Reserve Program (USDA, 2018).  This program provides financial incentives for farmers to let their land remain as wild as possible.  Farmers receive payments from the United States Department of Agriculture with the agreement that they do not disturb natural grasslands and allow wetlands to remain untouched.  This helps preserve the already shrinking breeding habitat for waterfowl, while enhancing the ecological diversity of the great plains. 


Ostensibly, migratory waterfowl face numerous threats from anthropogenic climate change for a multitude of reasons.  The sheer distance that they must travel between their summering and wintering grounds means that they encounter a large spectrum of ecosystems during their migration.  Therefore, each ecosystem and the unique threats posed to it by climate change are also threats to the health of North American waterfowl.  Even if waterfowl are thousands of miles away on the other end of their migration route, they are still being impacted.  As a result of anthropogenic climate change, migratory waterfowl are at risk of losing key habitats that will leave them vulnerable to significant declines in population and range during the 21st century. 





Clay Darling grew up hunting migratory waterfowl in Northern Michigan. He graduated from St. Lawrence University in 2019 with a combined degree in Environmental Studies and Government.  Currently, he is pursuing a career in conservation.  



United States, U.S. Global Change Research Program. (n.d.). Fourth National Climate Assessment (4th ed.). Washington, D.C.

Kenna, M., Hagy, H., McClain, S., Simpson, J., Osborn, J., Hine, C., . . . Yetter, A. (2017). True Metabolizable Energy of Submersed Aquatic Vegetation in Semi-Permanent Marshes for Dabbling Ducks in the Upper Midwest (Rep. No. 29). Champaign, IL: Illinois Natural History Survey.

Mississippi River at La Crosse [National Weather Service Hydrograph]. (2019, February 27). La Crosse, Wisconsin.

Peirce, J., Sandland, G., Bennie, B., & Haro, R. (2016). Modeling and analysis of a temperature-driven outbreak of waterfowl disease in the Upper Mississippi River. Ecological Modelling, 320, 71-78. doi:10.1016/j.ecolmodel.2015.09.011

United States of America, Department of Agriculture, Farm Service Agency. (2018). Conservation Reserve Program: Duck Nesting Habitat Initiative. Washington, D.C.

Visser, J., Broussard III, W., Shaffer, G., & Day, J. (2014). Climate Change Effects on the Ecology of the Mississippi River Delta. In Biochemical Dynamics at Large River-Coastal Interfaces: Linkages with Global Climate Change (pp. 421-438). Cambridge University Press.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Department of the Interior. (n.d.). Waterfowl Mortality on Pool 8 of the Upper Mississippi River [Press release]. Retrieved February 27, 2019, from

Westberg, D. (2017). The Effects of Climate Change on Migratory Waterfowl in the Pacific Flyway (Master's thesis, California State University, Sacramento, 2017). Sacramento.