Avian body size changes and climate change: warming or increasing variability?


Correspondence: Rae Goodman, tel. + 909 816 5606, fax + 415 405 0305, e-mail:


There has been a growing interest in whether established ecogeographical patterns, such as Bergmann's rule, explain changes in animal morphology related to climate change. Bergmann's rule has often been used to predict that body size will decrease as the climate warms, but the predictions about how body size will change are critically dependent on the mechanistic explanation behind the rule. To investigate change in avian body size in western North America, we used two long-term banding data sets from central California, USA; the data spanned 40 years (1971–2010) at one site and 27 years (1983–2009) at the other. We found that wing length of birds captured at both sites has been steadily increasing at a rate of 0.024–0.084% per year. Although changes in body mass were not always significant, when they were, the trend was positive and the magnitudes of significant trends were similar to those for wing length (0.040–0.112% per year). There was no clear difference between the rates of change of long-distance vs. short-distance migrants or between birds that bred locally compared to those that bred to the north of the sites. Previous studies from other regions of the world have documented decreases in avian body size and have used Bergmann's rule and increases in mean temperature to explain these shifts. Because our results do not support this pattern, we propose that rather than responding to increasing mean temperatures, avian body size in central California may be influenced by changing climatic variability or changes in primary productivity. More information on regional variation in the rates of avian body size change will be needed to test these hypotheses.