skip to main content

Title: Behavioral responses to spring snow conditions contribute to long-term shift in migration phenology in American robins

Migratory birds have the capacity to shift their migration phenology in response to climatic change. Yet the mechanistic underpinning of changes in migratory timing remain poorly understood. We employed newly developed global positioning system (GPS) tracking devices and long-term dataset of migration passage timing to investigate how behavioral responses to environmental conditions relate to phenological shifts in American robins (Turdus migratorius) during spring migration to Arctic-boreal breeding grounds. We found that over the past quarter-century (1994–2018), robins have migrated ca. 5 d/decade earlier. Based on GPS data collected for 55 robins over three springs (2016–2018), we found the arrival timing and likelihood of stopovers, and timing of arrival to breeding grounds, were strongly influenced by dynamics in snow conditions along migratory paths. These findings suggest plasticity in migratory behavior may be an important mechanism for how long-distance migrants adjust their breeding phenology to keep pace with advancement of spring on breeding grounds.

; ; ; ; ; ; ;
Award ID(s):
1853465 1915347
Publication Date:
Journal Name:
Environmental Research Letters
Page Range or eLocation-ID:
Article No. 045003
IOP Publishing
Sponsoring Org:
National Science Foundation
More Like this
  1. Abstract In migratory birds, among- and within-species heterogeneity in response to climate change may be attributed to differences in migration distance and environmental cues that affect timing of arrival at breeding grounds. We used eBird observations and a within-species comparative approach to examine whether migration distance (with latitude as a proxy) and weather predictors can explain spring arrival dates at the breeding site in a raptor species with a widespread distribution and diverse migration strategies, the American Kestrel Falco sparverius. We found an interactive effect between latitude and spring minimum temperatures on arrival dates, whereby at lower latitudes (short-distance migrants)more »American Kestrels arrived earlier in warmer springs and later in colder springs, but American Kestrels at higher latitudes (long-distance migrants) showed no association between arrival time and spring temperatures. Increased snow cover delayed arrival at all latitudes. Our results support the hypothesis that short-distance migrants are better able to respond to conditions on the breeding ground than are long-distance migrants, suggesting that long-distance migrants may be more vulnerable to shifts in spring conditions that could lead to phenological mismatch between peak resources and nesting.« less
  2. In response to a warming planet with earlier springs, migratory animals are adjusting the timing of essential life stages. Although these adjustments may be essential for keeping pace with resource phenology, they may prove insufficient, as evidenced by population declines in many species. However, even when species can match the tempo of climate change, other consequences may emerge when exposed to novel conditions earlier in the year. Here, using three long-term datasets on bird reproduction, daily insect availability, and weather, we investigated the complex mechanisms affecting reproductive success in an aerial insectivore, the tree swallow (Tachycineta bicolor). By examining breedingmore »records over nearly half a century, we discovered that tree swallows have continuously advanced their egg laying by ∼3 d per decade. However, earlier-hatching offspring are now exposed to inclement weather events twice as often as they were in the 1970s. Our long-term daily insect biomass dataset shows no long-term trends over 25 y but precipitous drops in flying insect numbers on days with low ambient temperatures. Insect availability has a considerable impact on chick survival: Even a single inclement weather event can reduce offspring survival by >50%. Our results highlight the multifaceted threats that climate change poses on migrating species. The decoupling between cold snap occurrence and generally warming spring temperatures can affect reproductive success and threaten long-term persistence of populations. Understanding the exact mechanisms that endanger aerial insectivores is especially timely because this guild is experiencing the steepest and most widespread declines across North America and Europe.

    « less
  3. Animals and plants are shifting the timing of key life events in response to climate change, yet despite recent documentation of escalating phenological change, scientists lack a full understanding of how and why phenological responses vary across space and among species. Here, we used over 7 million community-contributed bird observations to derive species-specific, spatially explicit estimates of annual spring migration phenology for 56 bird species across eastern North America. We show that changes in the spring arrival of migratory birds are coarsely synchronized with fluctuations in vegetation green-up and that the sensitivity of birds to plant phenology varied extensively. Bird arrivalmore »responded more synchronously with vegetation green-up at higher latitudes, where phenological shifts over time are also greater. Critically, species’ migratory traits explained variation in sensitivity to green-up, with species that migrate more slowly, arrive earlier and overwinter further north showing greater responsiveness to earlier springs. Identifying how and why species vary in their ability to shift phenological events is fundamental to predicting species’ vulnerability to climate change. Such variation in sensitivity across taxa, with long-distance neotropical migrants exhibiting reduced synchrony, may help to explain substantial declines in these species over the last several decades.« less
  4. Warming temperatures have been linked to advancing spring migration dates of birds, although most studies have been conducted at individual sites. Problems may arise if birds arrive or depart before or after associated food resources reach critical lifecycle stages. I compared mean first arrival dates of Rufous Hummingbird (Selaphorus rufus), a prolific pollinator and long-distance migrant, between 1895-1969 and 2006-2015 at eight locations in Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia. Historical arrivals were reported through the North American Bird Phenology Program and recent arrivals were estimated from temporal occupancy patterns using eBird checklists. Results indicated that hummingbirds arrived 8 and 11more »days later in the recent time period in two coastal cities in Oregon and 7-17 days earlier in northern, more inland cities in Washington and British Columbia. Spring temperatures have increased in the past century in much of this region and birds arrived earlier in years with warmer spring temperatures, suggesting that migratory advancements were climate-related. Later arrivals reported in coastal regions of Oregon in the recent time period may suggest that Rufous Hummingbirds are bypassing coastal areas to take advantage of more predictable conditions along inland migratory routes, or are shifting their breeding ranges northward, notions both supported by declining population trends observed in Breeding Bird Survey data. My results provide justification for the investigation of the ecological impacts of climate change on birds in coastal vs. inland environments and a framework for comparing information from two extensive and emerging datasets to better understand the impacts of climate change on bird migration.« less
  5. Monarch butterflies in eastern North America have declined by 84% on Mexican wintering grounds since the observed peak in 1996. However, coarse-scale population indices from northern US breeding grounds do not show a consistent downward trend. This discrepancy has led to speculation that autumn migration may be a critical limiting period. We address this hypothesis by examining the role of multiscale processes impacting monarchs during autumn, assessed using arrival abundances at all known winter colony sites over a 12-y period (2004–2015). We quantified effects of continental-scale (climate, landscape greenness, and disease) and local-scale (colony habitat quality) drivers of spatiotemporal trendsmore »in winter colony sizes. We also included effects of peak summer and migratory population indices. Our results demonstrate that higher summer abundance on northern breeding grounds led to larger winter colonies as did greener autumns, a proxy for increased nectar availability in southern US floral corridors. Colony sizes were also positively correlated with the amount of local dense forest cover and whether they were located within the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve, but were not influenced by disease rates. Although we demonstrate a demographic link between summer and fine-scale winter population sizes, we also reveal that conditions experienced during, and at the culmination of, autumn migration impact annual dynamics. Monarchs face a growing threat if floral resources and winter habitat availability diminish under climate change. Our study tackles a long-standing gap in the monarch’s annual cycle and highlights the importance of evaluating migratory conditions to understand mechanisms governing long-term population trends.« less