Spring Migration Earlier in European and North American Birds

Study Finds Timing and Duration of Spring Migration Has Increased

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New findings from a University of Helsinki study shows migratory birds in Europe and Canada have advanced the timing of their spring migration due to climate change.

The average migratory bird advanced its spring migration by one week in five decades, and the duration of the migration season has increased.

The greatest advances were found among short-distance migrants that winter in Europe or North America: about 1.5–2 days per decade.

Long-distance migrants that winter in the tropics have also advanced the start of their migration, but only by 0.6–1.2 days per decade.

“Based on changes in median migration dates, birds have on average advanced their spring migration by a little over a week since the late 1950s,” says Aleksi Lehikoinen from the Finnish Museum of Natural History, University of Helsinki.

READ: Climate Change Affects Breeding Birds

Early Migrants Advancing Spring Migration

Some species show much greater advances.

For instance, Whooper Swans now arrive in Finland about two weeks earlier than in the 1980s.

Whooper Swans arrive in Finland two weeks earlier than they did in the 1980s
Whooper Swans arrive in Finland two weeks earlier than they did in the 1980s

The advances in spring migration dates are not equal across the migration season.

Early migrants of a given species have advanced their migration dates more than late migrants within the species’ migration season.

First migrants have the highest pressure to arrive at their breeding grounds as early as possible.

Late migrants, which are typically non-breeders,  have no rush to move north.

This asymmetry has led to an overall increase in the duration of migration.

Rising Temps Advancing Spring Migration

Annual arrival dates of bird species were explained by local temperatures.

The earlier the spring, the earlier the timing of migration and the longer the migration season.

Geographical differences in climate change also explained regional differences in the advancement of spring migration.

“Birds advanced their migration dates more in Europe than in Canada, because spring temperatures have risen more quickly in Europe,” says Andreas Lindén from Yrkeshögskolan Novia, Finland.

The study is based on long-term monitoring data from 21 North European and Canadian bird observatories and included almost 200 study species.

The longest time series started in 1959, and the early 1960s and a large part of the data were collected by volunteer birdwatchers.

Read the study results in the international journal Ecological Indicators here.


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