The genetic basis, mode of inheritance and recent evolutionary changes of migratory directions in birds are discussed on the basis of published and new experimental evidence. Displacement experiments with wild-caught migrants and orientation tests with hand-reared passerines illustrate that inexperienced young birds possess genetic information about the direction and approximate distance of migration, but not about the geographic location of the winter quarters. Hand-raised blackcaps Sylvia atricapilla from east and west of the Central European migratory divide, when tested under identical conditions, exibited population-specific migratory directions in orientation cages. Cross-breeding of birds from these two populations demonstrated an intermediate mode of inheritance of this behavioural character. New data on the orientation of an F2 generation suggest that the directional information is encoded by only a few major genes. Migratory adaptations may have evolved recently, in some cases rapidly, as is illustrated by the establishment of a new migration route of central European blackcaps to winter quarters in the British Isles. This new route is shown (in a captive breeding experiment) to be based on a novel, genetically programmed westnorthwesterly migratory direction. It must have spread from almost zero to 7-11 % frequency in parts of central Europe within only three decades. The novel direction is also inherited phenotypically intermediately; its rapid evolution may be mediated by assortative mating based on differential arrival times at the breeding grounds. The evolutionary flexibility of migratory adaptations is discussed in relation to changes in the environment, both natural and accelerated by man.