Avian influenza viruses affect both poultry production and public health. A subtype H5N8 (clade 22.214.171.124) virus, following an outbreak in poultry in South Korea in January 2014, rapidly spread worldwide in 2014-2015. Our analysis of H5N8 viral sequences, epidemiological investigations, waterfowl migration, and poultry trade showed that long-distance migratory birds can play a major role in the global spread of avian influenza viruses. Further, we found that the hemagglutinin of clade 126.96.36.199 virus was remarkably promiscuous, creating reassortants with multiple neuraminidase subtypes. Improving our understanding of the circumpolar circulation of avian influenza viruses in migratory waterfowl will help to provide early warning of threats from avian influenza to poultry, and potentially human, health.