Birds Can’t Adapt Fast Enough to Climate Change

Birds Adjust Breeding Times to Match Earlier Springs, But It’s Not Clear If They Can Breed Early Enough to Assure Survival

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Birds and other animals cannot adapt fast enough to keep pace with climate change, throwing species survival in doubt.

After reviewing more than 10,000 published climate change studies an international team of scientists reached this sobering conclusion.

The results were recently published in the scientific journal Nature Communications.

Rising Temps Shift Timing of Hibernation, Reproduction and Migration

“Our research focused on birds because complete data on other groups were scarce,” says lead author Viktoriia Radchuk at the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research in Berlin.

She says the research demonstrates that in temperate regions, the rising temperatures are associated with a shift in the timing of biological events to earlier dates.

These biological events include hibernation, reproduction, and migration.

Changes in body size, body mass, or other physical traits have also been associated with climate change, but as confirmed by this study show no systematic pattern.

The Song Sparrow is one of many species included in a review of climate change studies
The Song Sparrow is one of many species included in a review of climate change studies

Birds Responding to Climate Change

“Birds can respond to changing climate by adjusting the timing of egg-laying,” says co-author André Dhondt at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

He says birds lay eggs earlier in warmer springs and later in colder springs.

This is adaptive because the birds have young in the nest when food is most abundant.

Dhondt says the results of this analysis are especially worrisome given its scope.


Birds Known to Cope Can’t Keep Pace

“The rate of climate change has increased so much over the last 20 years that in general birds and other animals cannot respond fast enough, leading to a mismatch between the timing of nesting and when food needed to feed the babies is peaking.”

Researchers extracted relevant information from the scientific literature to relate changes in climate over the years to possible changes in timing and physical traits.

Next, they evaluated whether observed trait changes were associated with higher survival or an increased number of offspring.

“Our results were obtained by comparing the observed response to climate change with the one expected if a population would be able to adjust their traits so to track the climate change perfectly,” explains co-author Thomas Reed, senior lecturer at University College Cork, Ireland.

The data analyzed included common and abundant species which are known to cope with climate change relatively well.

Even they cannot keep pace.

Research Key to Future Conservation Efforts

“This work underscores the importance of careful, long-term studies of bird populations with individually marked birds,” says Dhondt.

Dhondt says his work on Great and Blue Tits in Belgium, together with multiple other studies, not only documents how birds adapt in response to climate change but also shows how separate populations of the same bird species can adapt differently.

Scientists hope that their analysis and the assembled datasets will stimulate research on the resilience of bird and other animal populations in the face of global change.

And contribute to a better predictive framework to assist future conservation management actions.


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