Bird Migration & Climate Change

Bird Migration & Climate Change Photo Credit: By Bmajoros (CC BY-SA 4.0), via Wikimedia Commons.

Climate change could be leading to food shortages for migrating birds.


A bare cupboard for migrating birds. I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

Neotropical migrant birds breed in North America in spring and summer and migrate to Central and South America each fall. At Acadia National Park in Maine, wildlife field biologist Sarah Deckel and a team of volunteers from the group Earthwatch are counting berries and catching and banding birds migrating south to see if there’s a mismatch that could cause birds to starve before completing their journey.

Climate change is in effect, and we’re trying to see if this is causing the plants to produce fruit earlier. And the birds are migrating later because of these season changes, so that’s our main concern here.

Biologist Richard Feldman is in Yucatan, Mexico, documenting the birds’ arrival and condition. Many neotropical migrant birds are threatened or endangered, and the work will help determine if climate change is contributing to their plight. I’m Bob Hirshon, for AAAS, the science society.

Making Sense of the Research

The Acadia National Park in Maine provides critical stopover habitat for the many bird species whose migration is heavily concentrated in the Gulf of Maine. In fact, Acadia is on a bird "superhighway," a route heavily traveled by birds that migrate between Canada and South America. For example, researchers have recorded 23 species of warblers alone here. 

Understanding how bird populations use this area is vital for effectively managing stopover habitats and protected lands, including the land of the national park, and for guiding responsible development on shore and, in regard to wind power, off the coast. The research that Schoodic Institute is leading and facilitating is helping expand knowledge of how migratory birds move through the Gulf of Maine and use its habitats, how they and the fruit they eat are responding to changes in the environment, and how threats to their survival could be minimized. In particular, the work that Sarah Deckel and her team of volunteers are doing is to find out if there are shifts in when flowers become fruits and if the fruits are available when the birds need them. 

In order to carry out this work, the Schoodic Institute is building off of a long tradition of citizen science at Acadia National Park that dates back more than 120 years. Citizen science is the involvement of the public in scientific research. As a result of the research done by citizens, the park possesses a wealth of invaluable historical records that are like gold to researchers and park managers who are trying to understand and preserve bird species.

Sarah Deckel and the Earthwatch volunteers are trying to build off of this research by tracking migratory birds and counting berries. To catch the birds, they use mist nets, which are typically made of nylon or polyester mesh suspended between two poles, resembling a volleyball net. Once captured, they measure the birds according to scientific protocol and attach an official, identifying bird band. They then release the birds. There are researchers in countries like Mexico who will document the birds' arrival and condition.

In addition to catching the birds, the team counted berries in quadrants near where mist nets were set up. This activity involved some bush whacking and off path hiking. The berry counts were being taken to determine if fruit counts and timing were changing due to climate change. By mist netting in the same area, they were trying to determine the effect on migrating birds.

The results of this citizen science research could aid scientists in figuring out what effect, if any, climate change has on migratory birds' ability to migrate south for the winter.

Now try and answer these questions:

  1. What is a bird "superhighway"?
  2. Why are scientists trying to understand how bird populations use the area in Acadia National Park?
  3. What are Sarah Deckel and the volunteers trying to discover about the relationship between timing of fruits and arrival of migratory birds?
  4. What is citizen science and how far back does it date in Acadia National Park?
  5. How are the birds caught and tagged?

You can follow up this Science Update with one on Birdsong and Climate, which looks at how birds that live in more variable climates sing more sophisticated songs.

You can explore some of the changes that have been observed in Acadia National Park by going to Whenology and looking at its data visualizations.

Going Further

For Educators

You can help your students learn more about climate change and its effect on organisms by having them listen to Thoreau's Plants, which looks at how researches are using Henry David Thoreau's plant journals to study climate change.

If your students express an interest in citizen science, you can join a project as a class or encourage them to get involved in some on their own. A tool that is useful for finding citizen science projects is Zooniverse.

Related Resources

Citizen Scientists: Be a Part of Scientific Discovery from Your Own Backyard
6-8 |
How We Know What We Know about Our Changing Climate
6-8 | Audio
Population Dynamics
9-12 |
Journey North App
K-12 | Interactive
Project Noah App
K-12 | Interactive

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