What are Neotropical Migrants? (A Beginning Birder’s Guide)

Hooded Warbler (Wilsonia pusilla). Photo courtesy Jake Dingel/Pennsylvania Game Commission.
Hooded Warbler (Wilsonia pusilla). Photo courtesy Jake Dingel/Pennsylvania Game Commission.

Neotropical migrants are birds who move from southern regions north to North America, Canada and the Far North to breed and raise young. There are 361 species of birds that breed in the Nearctic (United States and Canada) and migrate to wintering grounds in the Neotropics (Caribbean, Mexico, and southward).

“In the southern and western United States, 50-60 percent of breeding birds are migrants, a number that rises to 80 percent in southern Canada and to 90 percent in the Canadian subarctic. (Cunningham, p. 1151)”,

These birds begin their southward migration soon after the young fledge meaning the young leave the nest and learn to fly.

Neotropic regions – Neotropical migrants.

What are the Neotropical and Nearctic Regions?

The Neotropical region includes Middle and South America and the West Indies. The Nearctic region include North America north of the tropics. The border between in the two regions is that area in Mexico which is the northern edge of tropical, evergreen forests. The transition between the tropical and non-tropical is not a straight line of demarcation. In some areas it maybe be hard to define the separation or transition between them. (DeGraaf, p. 9)

Nearctic regions – Neotropical Migrants


What families  and species of birds migrate between the tropics and the North?

The birds which migrate include pelicans, bitterns, egrets, storks, raptors, terns, warblers, and other species. Of the 361 species which migrate the family with the most species is the Emberizidae. This family includes the wood warblers, tanagers, orioles, and sparrow. This family has 95 species which are Neotropical migrants, which accounts for more than 25% of all Neotropical migrants.

How long do neotropical migrants spend in each region?

Even those of us in the northern breeding grounds think the birds spend most of their lives in the north with us, they don’t. A study of 13 common warblers migrants spent their year three months or less on their breeding grounds, two to three months migrating, and six to seven months on their wintering grounds (deGraf, p. 11).

The time spent migrating and living in the wintering grounds takes up the majority of their year. Breeding and raising young is but a short time for the birds.

What is the conservation status of Neotropical birds?

For quite awhile a blame game was played between the nations in the Nearctic region blaming the lands in the Neotropical lands for loss of habitat. The Neotropical nations in turn blamed the northern regions for the same.

A deadly combination of pesticides, predation (outdoor cats are a major culprit), and habitat loss negatively affect the population strength of migrating birds.

The loss of suitable habitats for breeding and wintering activities negatively affects the survival of these birds. In addition the loss of stopover areas of wetlands, forests, and grasslands along the migration routes are a major stressor.

It’s estimated that over 40% of North America’s forests which provide the primary breeding grounds of many migrants (especially warblers) have been fragmented by roads, parking lots, or suburban developments, or simply cut down and cleared.

Bullock's Oriole (Icterus bullockii)
Bullock’s Oriole (Icterus bullockii)

How do we help conserve Neotropical migrants?

The main activity is conservation of habitat. In both the nearctic breeding, stopover, and wintering grounds need protecting. In a way in boils down to what for humans what would be housing. There is a shortage of affordable housing in industrialized nations for humans. There is a shortage of breeding, stopover, and winter housing for migrating birds, too.

During the breeding season the migrants are adapted for a wide range of habitats from early-successional grasslands, old fields, and mature forests.

What is the Neotropical Migratory Bird Conservation Act?

“The Neotropical Migratory Bird Conservation Act authorizes grants for the conservation of neotropical migratory birds in the United States and Latin America and the Caribbean, with 75 percent of the amounts made available to be expended on projects outside the United States.” Find the Act here on FWS.gov. 

The report, Birds of Conservation Concern is available on the website of the U.S. Wildlife Service. 

An interactive Bird Conservation Map is available on the U.S. North American Bird Conservation Initiative website.

Spot-breasted Oriole (Icterus pectoralis)
Spot-breasted Oriole (Icterus pectoralis)- http://www.birdphotos.com

A List of Some but Not All Neotropical Migrants

This list is from Neotropical Migrants Breeding and Wintering Areas and Species List on Texas.gov.

  • Chimney Swift
  • Ruby-throated Hummingbird (Hummingbird Migration Dates)
  • Belted Kingfisher
  • Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
  • Black-billed Cuckoo
  • Yellow-billed Cuckoo
  • Common Nighthawk
  • Chuck-will’s-widow
  • Whip-poor-will
  • Olive-sided Flycatcher
  • Eastern Wood-Pewee
  • Eastern Phoebe
  • Great Crested Flycatcher
  • Eastern Kingbird
  • Western Kingbird
  • Scissor-tailed Flycatcher
  • White-eyed Vireo
  • Blue-headed Vireo
  • Yellow-throated Vireo
  • Warbling Vireo
  • Philadelphia Vireo
  • Red-eyed Vireo
  • Purple Martin
  • Barn Swallow
  • Cliff Swallow
  • House Wren
  • Marsh Wren
  • Veery
  • Gray-cheeked Thrush
  • Swainson’s Thrush
  • Hermit Thrush
  • Wood Thrush
  • Gray Catbird
  • Cedar Waxwing
  • Blue-winged Warbler
  • Golden-winged Warbler
  • Tennessee Warbler
  • Nashville Warbler
  • Northern Parula
  • Yellow Warbler
  • Chestnut-sided Warbler*
  • Magnolia Warbler
  • Cape May Warbler
  • Black-throated Blue Warbler
  • Yellow-rumped Warbler
  • Black-throated Green Warbler
  • Blackburnian Warbler
  • Yellow-throated Warbler
  • Prairie Warbler
  • Palm Warbler
  • Bay-breasted Warbler
  • Blackpoll Warbler
  • Cerulean Warbler
  • Black-and-white Warbler
  • American Redstart
  • Prothonotary Warbler
  • Worm-eating Warbler
  • Swainson’s Warbler
  • Ovenbird
  • Northern Waterthrush
  • Louisiana Waterthrush
  • Kentucky Warbler
  • Common Yellowthroat
  • Hooded Warbler
  • Yellow-breasted Chat
  • Summer Tanager
  • Scarlet Tanager
  • Rose-breasted Grosbeak
  • Blue Grosbeak
  • Dickcissel
  • Bobolink
  • Orchard Oriole
  • Baltimore Oriole

Birding and Neotropical Migrants

As we learned above the average migrants spend most of their year on their wintering grounds to the south. If those of us in the northern regions want to see their species we either have to travel to the south regions when the birds are wintering or get outside in spring and find them during migration. We maybe also see some species come to our summer bird feeders.

Once the birds are nesting and raising young, responsible birders stop patrolling the woods and wetlands and leave the birds to raise their young undisturbed.

Keeping a Life List or Birder’s Journal


When I started birding it took me awhile to understand the seasonal movements of birds. Why other birders came out in force during spring and fall migrations was a bit of a mystery.

Now we can seek out stopover places that provide food, water, and rest for migrating birds.

I hope this clears up questions birders have about when and where to bird.

Works Consulted

Cunningham, Mary Ann. “Neotropical Migrants.” In Environmental Encyclopedia, edited by Deidre S. Blanchfield, 2:1151–52. Detroit, Michigan: Cengage Learning, 2011.

DeGraaf, Richard M., and John H. Rappole. Neotropical Migratory Birds: Natural History, Distribution, and Population Change. Ithaca: Comstock Publishing Associates, 1995.

More on Bird Migration

Bird Migration Facts

Spring Birding for Beginning Birders

Bird Migration Routes: Do You Live Near One?

Identifying Birds by Color

Keeping a Life List or Birder’s Journal

BirdLife.org – International Bird Conservation

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