Climate Change Impacts: Birds


Climate change can affect populations and species in various ways. Rising temperatures can shift geographical distributions and lead to (phenotypic or genetic) changes in traits, mostly phenology, which may affect demography. Most of these effects are well documented in birds. For example, the distribution of species has shifted polewards, and birds are nowadays breeding or migrating earlier. An important aspect of the observed phenological changes is whether species are thereby able to maintain synchrony with phenological changes in their environment, for example the phenology of their prey species. Disrupted synchrony, for example between predator and prey, can lead to reduced reproductive success or survival, which can negatively affect demography. Evidence for this happening in birds is – so far – limited but theoretical models predict that extinction risks could arise through insufficient adaptation to such phenological mismatches.

Key Concepts

  • Climate change will alter the optimal value of traits.
  • Populations can track a changing environment by phenotypic plasticity.
  • If phenotypic plasticity is not sufficient to track the environment, selection arises and an evolutionary change becomes necessary.
  • Maladaptation can lead to extinction due to reduced reproductive success or survival.
  • Genetic variation is important for evolutionary change and hence adaptation to climate change.

Keywords: adaptation; birds; breeding; climate change; demography; migration; phenology; phenotypic plasticity

Figure 1. Schematic representation of the great tit–caterpillar phenology in the Hoge Veluwe. Three important life‐history events in the great tit reproduction cycle are denoted with the red line and nestling peak food need with a green line in the top half of the schematic; the caterpillar phenology is indicated with the green line in the lower half. Before the effects of climate change were apparent, peak food demands and availability coincided (left‐hand side of the schematic); owing to increasingly warmer springs, the caterpillar biomass peak has advanced by ∼2 weeks, whereas the timing of nestling peak food need has advanced at a slower rate, leading to ‘phenological mismatch’ (right‐hand side).


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Further Reading

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Tomotani, Barbara M, Ramakers, Jip JC, and Gienapp, Phillip(Nov 2016) Climate Change Impacts: Birds. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0020484.pub2]