Spring asynchrony in migratory birds

15 05 2017

Brent geese flock in the Limfjorden (Denmark)courtesy of Kevin Clausen. The Brent goose (Branta bernicla) is a migratory goose that breeds in Arctic coasts, as well as in northern Eurasia and the Americas, starting from late May to early June. Adults are about 0.5 m long, weigh some 2 kg and live up to 30 years. Their nests are placed in the ground, where reproductive pairs incubate a single clutch (≤ 5 eggs) for a couple of months. They are herbivores, feeding on algae (mainly Zostera marina in Limfjord) and seagrass in estuaries, fjords, intertidal areas and rocky beaches during fall and winter. During summer they feed on tundra herbs, moss, lichens, as well as aquatic plants in rivers and lakes. The species is ‘Least Concern’ for the IUCN, with a global population at some 600,000 individuals.

Migratory birds synchronise their travel from non-breeding to breeding quarters with the seasonal conditions optimal for reproduction. Above all, they decide when to migrate on the basis of the climate of their wintering areas while they are there. As climate change involves earlier springs in the Arctic but not in the wintering areas, there is a lack of synchronisation that leads to a demographic decline of these birds in the polar regions where they breed.

When I think about how species respond to climate change, the song from the ClashShould I stay or should I go” comes to mind. As climate changes, species eventually have to face an ultimate choice: (i) stay and adapt to novel conditions or become locally extinct if adaptation fails, (ii) or move to other regions where climatic conditions should be more suitable. Migratory species have to face this decision every time they have to move back and forth from non-breeding to breeding grounds.

Migration is a behavioural strategy shared by different animal groups like sea turtles, mammals, amphibians, insects or birds. Species move from one area to another usually to feed and reproduce in the best climatic conditions possible. For birds, migration is a common phenomenon that typically entails large movements between breeding and wintering grounds. These vertebrates boast some of the longest migratory distances known in the animal kingdom, particularly seabirds like Artic terns, which can complete up to a round-world trip in a single migratory event between the UK and the Antarctic (1). There are several theories about the mechanisms triggering bird migration, including improving body condition and fitness through unexploited resources (2), reducing parasite load (3), minimizing predation risk (4), maximizing day-light (5), or reducing competition (6, 7). Whatever the cause, birds have to decide when the best moment to migrate is, counting only with the (usually climatic) clues they have at the departure site. Read the rest of this entry »