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New study shows how climate change affects migration of American Robins

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New study shows how climate change affects migration of American Robins

08.08.2016

As temperatures around the world continue to rise each year, it becomes ever clearer that the earth is experiencing a major climactic change, and that this will have dramatic implications for all life on the planet. Scientists are continuing to document how these changes are affecting the world’s animal populations, and at the forefront of this effort, are studies of migratory birds. Because bird migrations are often very tightly tied to the changing seasons, and current weather patterns, scientists are concerned that global warming trends are affecting these long-distance journeys. Now, a new study from the online journal Animal Migration, has uncovered how the migration strategy of a common backyard bird in North America, the American Robin, is changing in recent years due to climate change.

In the article, David Brown and Gail Miller from Eastern Kentucky University, utilized a unique collection of publically-available data in this effort: bird-banding data. For decades, ornithologists and volunteers have been capturing migrating songbirds and placing tiny metal bands on their legs, each with a unique tracking number. When the banded birds are later recovered somewhere else, scientists can draw inferences about their migration route by comparing the locations of capture and recovery. For their study, Brown and Miller specifically examined 80 years of banding and recovery records of American Robins in North America, to explore if and how their migration strategies have changed. 

The authors combed through this mountain of archived data, in particular looking for evidence that Robins are shifting their winter range northward, or that their migration route was becoming shorter over time. However they were surprised to find neither of these were the case. Instead they found there has been an increasing frequency of ‘local recoveries’ in recent years, which means that more and more Robins are choosing to opt out of migrating altogether.

“American robins are the harbinger of spring and an important species for exploring whether migration patterns might be shifting in response to modern climate change”, says Dr. Benjamin Zuckerberg, a professor of wildlife ecology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “The trend of increasing residency for a short-distance migrant is yet another indication that migration is a plastic behavior that may be changing with climate” says Zuckerberg.

The new study also highlighted how bird-banding records, even decades-old, continue to be useful in current ornithological research. Andy Davis, the Editor-in-Chief of the journal, said “Most recent studies of bird migrations that we publish in Animal Migration, have utilized geolocator tags, which provide more detailed information about migration routes, but they can be hard to use because they need to be retrieved to download the data.” As one reviewer of the new study pointed out, “It is refreshing to see "old school" data being so carefully examined in this age of gee-whiz technology.”

The original article is fully open access and available to read, download and share on De Gruyter Online.