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The disproportionate effect of global warming on the arrival dates of short-distance migratory birds in North America


  • Christopher J. Butler

    Corresponding author
    1. Edward Grey Institute of Field Ornithology, Department of Zoology, University of Oxford, South Parks Road, Oxford OX1 3PS, UK
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Recent studies have shown that, in response to global climate change, diverse avian taxa are now nesting measurably earlier (< 10 days) in both the United States and Britain. Similarly, several studies on European birds have now demonstrated that a variety of species (although not all) are arriving increasingly early. However, surprisingly, widespread changes in North American migrant phenology have not been demonstrated. It is hypothesized that short-distance migrants (birds that winter in the southern United States) may be quicker to adapt to climate change than long-distance migrants (birds that winter south of the United States), as short-distance migrants can respond to meteorological cues indicating weather conditions to the north whereas long-distance migrants must rely on photoperiod. This study examined the first arrival dates of 103 migrant birds in New York and Massachusetts and found that, on average, all migrants arrived significantly earlier during the period 1951–1993 than the period 1903–1950. From 1951–1993 birds wintering in the southern United States arrived on average 13 days earlier while birds wintering in South America arrived 4 days earlier. Although a change in observer effort cannot be quantified and may be a source of bias, a comparison of the numbers of reporting observers during the 1930s and the 1980s revealed no significant difference. These results are consistent with those expected under a scenario of global warming.