Migrating songbirds feeling global warming impacts

New evidence that a changing climate is disrupting feeding and breeding cycles of migrating birds

Purple martins and other songbirds may not be able to keep up with a changing climate. Photo courtesy USFWS.

Purple martins and other migrating songbirds may not be able to keep up with a changing climate. Photo courtesy USFWS.

By Summit Voice

FRISCO — In another sign that climate disruption will have cascading effect on ecosystems, researchers with York University have shown how migrating songbirds are affected by warmer spring temperatures in the northern hemisphere.

In a five-year study, biologists used tiny geolocator ‘backpacks” to track purple martins from their winter habitat in South America to breeding sites in eastern North America. The birds consistently left South America at the same time each year, not having any idea that warmer spring temperatures at their breeding sites was affecting the availability of food.

“We found that purple martins migrating between the Amazon Basin and North America did not adjust their migration timing even during the hottest spring on record in 2012,” said study author Kevin Fraser, a postdoctoral fellow in York’s biology department. “This means that they arrived ‘late’ for the advanced spring, and likely missed out on peak food they need to be productive breeders.”

Aerial insectivores, like purple martins and other swallows, are experiencing strong population declines, particularly species migrating longer distances and populations breeding further north. Scientists have shown in a European species that declines may be due to an inability to advance arrival schedules to match a warming climate. This study provides the first direct evidence of a discrepancy between higher spring temperatures at breeding sites and departure schedules of individual songbirds.

Other studies have shown that some migrating hummingbird species are also out of synch with their primary early season food supply in the Rocky Mountains, and the same holds true for butterflies that rely on certain types of alpine plants.

“Our results suggest that long-distance migrants may receive limited or conflicting environmental cues about conditions at the breeding grounds while still at overwintering sites or along migration routes,” said Fraser. “Once en route, the birds received no temperature cues of the warm spring until they reached the US Gulf coast, at which point it was likely too late to get to breeding sites earlier.” Fraser says such mistiming is an active area of new research, and with climate change may be an important contributing factor to migratory songbird declines.

“Some migratory songbirds may not have the flexibility they need to respond quickly to earlier springs and more variable weather with climate change, which could contribute to the strong population declines we see in many species. Identifying which species or populations may be at greatest risk will be very important for guiding effective conservation action,” he said.

The study suggests that migration timing and rate in purple martin is not highly sensitive to short-term variation in temperature and rainfall, and that multiple years of increasing spring temperatures may be required to shift the birds to an earlier breeding arrival time through natural selection for earlier departure from tropical overwintering sites.

The study, “A Trans-Hemispheric Migratory Songbird Does Not Advance Spring Schedules or Increase Migration Rate in Response to Record-Setting Temperatures at Breeding Sites”, was published in the journal PLOS ONE.

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2 Responses

  1. […] primary food sources, for example hummingbirds that fly to the southern Rocky Mountains, as well as purple martins that fly from South America to eastern North America. Both species arrival is increasingly out of synch with key food […]

  2. […] Other recent research has shown similar impacts to white pelicans at their breeding grounds in North Dakota, and climate change is also disrupting breeding of migratory songbirds. […]

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