Do migratory pathways affect the regional abundance of wintering birds? A test in northern Spain


*José Luis Tellería, Department of Zoology, Faculty of Biology, Universidad Complutense, 28040 Madrid, Spain. E-mail:


Aim  The abundance distribution of organisms at regional scales is commonly interpreted as the result of spatial variation in habitat suitability. However, the possibility that geography itself may affect patterns of distribution has received less attention. For example, the abundance of wintering bird populations might be influenced by the cost of reaching areas located far away from the main migratory pathways. We studied the abundance distribution of three common migratory passerines (meadow pipits, Anthus pratensis; common chaffinches, Fringilla coelebs; and European robins, Erithacus rubecula) wintering in farmlands located in the 600-km long Cantabrian coastal sector of northern Spain, roughly perpendicular to the west Pyrenean migratory pathway that drives European migrant birds into the Iberian Peninsula.

Location  The study area occupies a belt located between the Atlantic coast and the Cantabrian Mountains in northern Spain.

Methods  We counted wintering and breeding birds and measured the structure of vegetation and environmental variables (altitude, rainfall, temperature) in 68 farmlands distributed at different distances from the west Pyrenean migratory flyway. We also studied the distribution of birds ringed in central and northern Europe and recovered in the study area between October and February. Analyses were based on single univariate statistics (chi-square tests), ordination by principal components analysis and multiple regression.

Results  Controlling for the effects of climate, vegetation structure and local abundance of breeding conspecifics, the winter abundance of all three species decreased with the distance from their main migratory route in the western Pyrenees. Such patterns fitted well to the observed distribution of ringing recoveries.

Main conclusions  Our results support a link between the movements of birds along the Pyrenean migratory pathway and their winter abundance in northern Spain. According to this view, the sectors located near the migratory pathway seem to be more easily occupied by migrants, supporting the idea that proximity to passage areas may explain the fine-grain regional patterning of species abundance in wintering grounds.