Temperature-related increases in grass growth and greater competition for food drive earlier migrational departure of wintering Whooper Swans

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Corresponding author.
Email: rstirnemann@gmail.com

Abstract

Understanding the departure decisions of migratory birds is critical for determining how changing climatic conditions will influence subsequent arrival times on the breeding grounds. A long-term dataset (1972–2008) of Whooper Swan Cygnus cygnus departure dates from a wintering site in Ireland was used to assess the factors determining the timing of migration. Early and late migrating swans showed different departure patterns. Earlier wintering ground departure was more pronounced for the first 50% of the population than the last 10% of departing individuals. Earlier departure was associated with an increase in February temperatures at the wintering site for all departure phases except the date when the last individual departed. The date by which the first 50% of Swans had departed was earlier with increasing numbers of wintering Swans, suggesting that competition on the wintering grounds may further influence the timing of departure. The results also suggested that departure is mediated by the influence of spring temperature on food resources, with increased February grass growth in warmer years enabling earlier departure of migrating Swans. To determine why arrival dates in the breeding ground have altered, environmental conditions in the wintering grounds must be taken into account.

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