Winds of Climate Change Impact Migratory Birds

New Study Finds Both Positive and Negative Impacts Possible

Winds of Climate Change Impact Migratory Birds

A new Cornell Lab of Ornithology study finds future climate scenarios offer both positive and negative impacts on migratory birds.

Cornell researchers used data from 143 weather radar stations to estimate the altitude, density, and direction birds took during spring and autumn migrations over several years.

Winds Impact Migration

They found changing winds may make it harder for North American birds to migrate southward in the autumn.

But make it easier for them to come back north in the spring.

The researchers also extracted wind data from 28 different climate change projections in the most recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Findings were recently published in the journal Global Change Biology.

Eastern Meadowlarks migrate through the central portion of the continent and are among the rapidly-declining suite of grassland birds
Eastern Meadowlarks migrate through the central portion of the continent and are among the rapidly-declining suite of grassland birds

Wind Assistance for Migrating Birds

“We combined these data to estimate how wind assistance is expected to change during this century under global climate change,” explains lead author Frank La Sorte, a Cornell Lab of Ornithology scientist.

“This matters for migratory birds because they use more energy flying into headwinds. But they get a nice boost from tailwinds so they can conserve energy during flight.”

La Sorte and co-authors project that winds from the south are expected to become stronger by the end of the century during both spring and fall migration periods.

Winds from the west may be stronger during spring migration and slightly weaker during the fall.

Westerly winds are much more variable overall and harder to predict because they are tied to erratic fluctuations in the high-altitude jet stream.

Wind changes will be most pronounced in the central and eastern portions of the continent.

Future Wind-Aided Flight Changes

Wind Assistance Graphic by Frank La Sorte, Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Wind Assistance Graphic by Frank La Sorte, Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Across the eastern and especially the central portions of the continent, the efficiency of nocturnal migration is projected to increase in the spring and decrease in the autumn, potentially affecting time and energy expenditures for many migratory bird species. Warmer colors (red, orange) indicate stronger wind assistance. Cooler colors (purple, blue) show decreased wind assistance for bird flight. Graphic by Frank La Sorte, Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

With an assist from stronger tailwinds during spring migration, birds would likely arrive in better condition on their northern breeding grounds with better odds of survival.

Their fall migration flights into stronger headwinds would drain more energy.

If headwinds are too strong, birds may choose not to fly at all on a particular night, throwing off the timing of their migrations.

The Dickcissel migrates through the central portion of the continent and are among the rapidly-declining grassland birds
The Dickcissel migrates through the central portion of the continent and are among the rapidly-declining grassland birds

Adapting to Global Changes

“The thing to remember about these projected wind changes is that they will not occur in isolation,” La Sorte says.

“There will be other global change factors for birds to contend with, including changes in temperatures, rainfall, and land cover.”

Some birds may be able to adapt because the expected wind changes are likely to happen gradually.

Birds Adjust Migration Strategy

Studies also show that migratory birds already adjust their migration strategy under current conditions, altering their headings to compensate for winds that push them from their intended flight path.

“The bottom line is that some climate change effects could be negative for migratory birds, and some might even be positive, at least during a specific phase of their migration,” says La Sorte.

“There’s an awful lot of uncertainty because both climate and migration are complex systems that can intersect in many different ways.”

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