The influence of climate on the timing and rate of spring bird migration

Abstract

Ecological processes are changing in response to climatic warming. Birds, in particular, have been documented to arrive and breed earlier in spring and this has been attributed to elevated spring temperatures. It is not clear, however, how long-distance migratory birds that overwinter thousands of kilometers to the south in the tropics cue into changes in temperature or plant phenology on northern breeding areas. We explored the relationships between the timing and rate of spring migration of long-distance migratory birds, and variables such as temperature, the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO) and plant phenology, using mist net capture data from three ringing stations in North America over a 40-year period. Mean April/May temperatures in eastern North America varied over a 5°C range, but with no significant trend during this period. Similarly, we found few significant trends toward earlier median capture dates of birds. Median capture dates were not related to the NAO, but were inversely correlated to spring temperatures for almost all species. For every 1°C increase in spring temperature, median capture dates of migratory birds averaged, across species, one day earlier. Lilac (Syringa vulgaris) budburst, however, averaged 3 days earlier for every 1°C increase in spring temperature, suggesting that the impact of temperature on plant phenology is three times greater than on bird phenology. To address whether migratory birds adjust their rate of northward migration to changes in temperature, we compared median capture dates for 15 species between a ringing station on the Gulf Coast of Louisiana in the southern USA with two stations approximately 2,500 km to the north. The interval between median capture dates in Louisiana and at the other two ringing stations was inversely correlated with temperature, with an average interval of 22 days, that decreased by 0.8 days per 1°C increase in temperature. Our results suggest that, although the onset of migration may be determined endogenously, the timing of migration is flexible and can be adjusted in response to variation in weather and/or phenology along migration routes.

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Acknowledgements

We wish to thank the legions of volunteers that have helped with ringing efforts at all of the stations and the folks who had the foresight to initiate these long-term ringing stations. We thank Bird Studies Canada for making Long Point Bird Observatory data available. Financial support for the field operations at Long Point was provided by the W. Garfield Weston Foundation, the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources—Wildlife Assessment Program, the Federation of Ontario Naturalists, and donations from hundreds of individuals and organizations. We thank Robert C. Leberman for his key role in initiating and maintaining the continuity of the banding program at Powdermill Nature Reserve from 1961 to present. Operated by Carnegie Museum of Natural History, the Powdermill program has been generously funded through numerous grants from private individuals and corporate foundations. We also thank Marilyn Niedermeier, data entry operator at the Section of Birds of CMNH, for her diligent work entering and checking Powdermill’s daily banding records for more than 20 years, and for providing us with the Powdermill data used in this study. Mark Schwartz was kind enough to provide the lilac data. Nora Diggs helped develop the figures and Kevin Omland, Scott Sillett and Colin Studds made important suggestions to improve the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Peter P. Marra.

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Marra, P.P., Francis, C.M., Mulvihill, R.S. et al. The influence of climate on the timing and rate of spring bird migration. Oecologia 142, 307–315 (2005). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00442-004-1725-x

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Keywords

  • Climate change
  • Migratory birds
  • Phenology
  • Temperature
  • Timing of migration