Climate Change

Extreme weather: Understanding birds’ response can help conservation efforts

All birds respond differently to different extreme weather events; long- and short-distance migration bird species are impacted differently by climate change

 
By DTE Staff
Published: Tuesday 25 August 2020
The numbers of short-distance migrant species, including robins, declined 10-30 per cent over several weeks during extreme heat waves. Photo: Pxhere

The efforts of conservationists in protecting birds can now be more efficiently directed towards those species that are found to suffer more due to extreme weather events linked to climate change, showed a recent study.

All birds respond differently to different extreme weather events. The impact of different species is usually assessed by ecologists who observe a small number of them at different sites for a number of years, after which they form conclusions.

Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, United States, however, gave a shot at a significantly larger study to assess these impacts. They looked at 109 species across eastern North America for 15 years and used data from eBird, a global citizen-science initiative where bird enthusiasts submit checklists of bird sightings.

More than 830,000 such checklists — that included the types of species, their numbers, locations and times — were integrated with fine-scale satellite temperature and precipitation data from over a week, to a month or three months. This study — published in journal Global Change Biology August 21, 2020 — found several bird species could adapt to different extreme events, while a number of other species perished.

Species that migrated long distances were not significantly affected by really hot periods, according to UW-Madison postdoctoral researcher Jeremy Cohen, one of the researchers. “They winter in tropical environments and should be tolerant of heat,” he said.

Short-distance migrant species, however, did not fare as well as their long-distance counterparts. The study found these species — including robins and red-winged blackbirds — had their numbers decline 10-30 per cent over several weeks.

Similarly, rare species were less likely to fare well in drought-like situations than common species like crows, particularly if such droughts were severe and long-lasting.

“Rarer species have more specialised habitat and food requirements: This is a general rule in ecology,” said Cohen. “More common species usually have more options. If habitat quality declines due to drought, a generalist can go somewhere else,” he added.

This was the first large-scale study to look at the immediate response of bird species to such weather events, according to Cohen. Conservationists will now be able to better understand how many bird species can be affected by climate change, allowing them to mitigate these negative effects.

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