, Volume 53, Issue 3, pp 211-220
Date: 06 Feb 2009

Response of birds to climatic variability; evidence from the western fringe of Europe

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Abstract

Ireland’s geographic location on the western fringe of the European continent, together with its island status and impoverished avifauna, provides a unique opportunity to observe changes in bird migration and distribution patterns in response to changing climatic conditions. Spring temperatures have increased in western Europe over the past 30 years in line with reported global warming. These have been shown, at least in part, to be responsible for changes in the timing of life cycle events (phenology) of plants and animals. In order to investigate the response of bird species in Ireland to changes in temperature, we examined ornithological records of trans-Saharan migrants over the 31-year period 1969–1999. Analysis of the data revealed that two discrete climatic phenomena produced different responses in summer migrant bird species. Firstly, a number of long-distance migrants showed a significant trend towards earlier arrival. This trend was evident in some species and was found to be a response to increasing spring air temperature particularly in the month of March. Secondly, (1) a step change in the pattern of occurrences of non-breeding migrant bird species, and (2) an increase in the ringing data of migrant species were found to correlate with a step change in temperature in 1987–1988. These results indicate that, for migrant bird species, the impact of a sudden change in temperature can be as important as any long-term monotonic trend, and we suggest that the impact of step change events merits further investigation on a wider range of species and across a greater geographical range.