Nav: Home

Tiny song bird makes record migration, U of G study proves

March 19, 2019

It's an epic journey for a tiny bird.

For the first time, University of Guelph biologists have tracked an annual migration of up to 20,000 kilometres made by the 12-gram blackpoll warbler, one of the fastest declining songbirds in North America.

The bird's trek between its breeding grounds in the central and western boreal forest of North America and its winter home in the Amazon Basin - one of the longest songbird migrations recorded -- is the topic of a new paper by a research team headed by U of G biologist Ryan Norris.

The paper was published today in the journal Ecology.

Describing a "great circle route" arcing across North America and including a transoceanic flight to South America, the study confirms an epic migration journey that scientists had long suspected but not yet proved.

In 2015, Norris and other biologists were the first to show that blackpolls breeding in the Maritimes and New England complete a non-stop transoceanic flight of up to three days and about 2,700 km along the eastern coast of the United States.

For this new study, they looked at the full migration of birds from central and western breeding populations.

"It's amazing," said Norris, who worked on the study with Hilary Cooke, associate conservation scientist with Wildlife Conservation Society Canada. "A bird weighing a couple of loonies travels from the western edge of North America all the way to the Amazon basin - and, in between, traverses the Atlantic Ocean."

Other co-authors were integrative biology professor Amy Newman and U of G grad students Bradley Woodworth, Nikole Freeman and Alex Sutton, as well as researchers from other universities, conservation groups and national parks in Canada, the U.S. and Australia.

For the study, researchers tracked birds outfitted with tiny geolocators from four boreal forest sites across northern Canada and Alaska.

Total southward migration took about 60 days on average over distances ranging from 6,900 km for birds breeding in Churchill, Manitoba, to 10,700 km for populations on the western edge of the continent in Nome, Alaska.

Blackpolls from Nome took 18 days to fly across North America to the Atlantic coast of the Carolinas. There, the birds spent almost a month fattening up to double their body weight before a non-stop, 2 ½-day flight across open water to overwintering grounds in northern Colombia, Venezuela and Brazil.

They covered between 2,250 and 3,400 km for that transoceanic hop.

Norris said scientists had long believed that blackpolls followed the great circle route. Few of the birds have ever been found in the central or western States during fall migration.

He said population numbers have fallen in recent years, perhaps caused by habitat loss and declines in insect prey related to climate change.

"To understand what's causing the decline, we need to know their full annual cycle," he said.

In their paper, the researchers say climate change may make extreme coastal weather events more frequent and more extreme, with unknown impacts on long-distance migratory birds.

"As a conservation scientist, what strikes me most is that in a single year a blackpoll warbler has to navigate 20,000 kilometres across land and ocean, facing risks of cat predation, storms and collisions with buildings and vehicles, all while trying to find islands of habitat to rest and refuel in our human-dominated landscapes,"said Cooke. "In comparison, the boreal region of northern Canada provides safe and high-quality breeding habitat for this declining species. Protecting Canada's boreal forest is critical to saving this amazing songbird."

Norris is now working with biologists in Colombia looking at the overwintering portion of the warblers' life cycle. He said learning whether populations from across the boreal forest overwinter separately or together in South American rainforests may help improve habitat management along the migration route.
-end-
Contacts:
Prof. Ryan Norris
University of Guelph
rnorris@uoguelph.ca

Hilary Cooke
Wildlife Conservation Society Canada
hcooke@wcs.org

University of Guelph

Related Climate Change Articles:

A CERN for climate change
In a Perspective article appearing in this week's Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Tim Palmer (Oxford University), and Bjorn Stevens (Max Planck Society), critically reflect on the present state of Earth system modelling.
Fairy-wrens change breeding habits to cope with climate change
Warmer temperatures linked to climate change are having a big impact on the breeding habits of one of Australia's most recognisable bird species, according to researchers at The Australian National University (ANU).
Believing in climate change doesn't mean you are preparing for climate change, study finds
Notre Dame researchers found that although coastal homeowners may perceive a worsening of climate change-related hazards, these attitudes are largely unrelated to a homeowner's expectations of actual home damage.
Older forests resist change -- climate change, that is
Older forests in eastern North America are less vulnerable to climate change than younger forests, particularly for carbon storage, timber production, and biodiversity, new research finds.
Could climate change cause infertility?
A number of plant and animal species could find it increasingly difficult to reproduce if climate change worsens and global temperatures become more extreme -- a stark warning highlighted by new scientific research.
Predicting climate change
Thomas Crowther, ETH Zurich identifies long-disappeared forests available for restoration across the world.
Historical climate important for soil responses to future climate change
Researchers at Lund University in Sweden, in collaboration with colleagues from the University of Amsterdam, examined how 18 years of drought affect the billions of vital bacteria that are hidden in the soil beneath our feet.
Can forests save us from climate change?
Additional climate benefits through sustainable forest management will be modest and local rather than global.
From crystals to climate: 'Gold standard' timeline links flood basalts to climate change
Princeton geologists used tiny zircon crystals found in volcanic ash to rewrite the timeline for the eruptions of the Columbia River flood basalts, a series of massive lava flows that coincided with an ancient global warming period 16 million years ago.
Think pink for a better view of climate change
A new study says pink noise may be the key to separating out natural climate variability from climate change that is influenced by human activity.
More Climate Change News and Climate Change Current Events

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2019.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Accessing Better Health
Essential health care is a right, not a privilege ... or is it? This hour, TED speakers explore how we can give everyone access to a healthier way of life, despite who you are or where you live. Guests include physician Raj Panjabi, former NYC health commissioner Mary Bassett, researcher Michael Hendryx, and neuroscientist Rachel Wurzman.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#543 Give a Nerd a Gift
Yup, you guessed it... it's Science for the People's annual holiday episode that helps you figure out what sciency books and gifts to get that special nerd on your list. Or maybe you're looking to build up your reading list for the holiday break and a geeky Christmas sweater to wear to an upcoming party. Returning are pop-science power-readers John Dupuis and Joanne Manaster to dish on the best science books they read this past year. And Rachelle Saunders and Bethany Brookshire squee in delight over some truly delightful science-themed non-book objects for those whose bookshelves are already full. Since...
Now Playing: Radiolab

An Announcement from Radiolab