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Migratory songbirds appear to pick breeding sites based on environmental conditions, rather than competition with other birds for territories, according to new research from the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center and University of Maryland.

Migratory songbirds travel long distances between their warm winter homes in the tropics and their breeding grounds in North America. How they pick precisely where to stop along the route and breed has been a question puzzling ornithologists for decades.

Although most birds return to the area they inhabited the previous year, previous research indicated some birds that leave wintering grounds earlier populate southern breeding areas first, and the late-comers keep flying north. Some scientists hypothesized that these individuals were settling in places with few competitors, trying to find unoccupied territory.

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