Two technical reports just published confirm what local birdwatchers have long known: some of our migratory birds are staying much closer to home in winter these days.
Climate warming and other environmental changes seem to be causing a shift in the wintering grounds of European birds northwards. This was tested in two studies, one looking at numbers of some common northern-European songbirds including robins, chaffinches and wagtails that winter in Spain and one looking more specifically at robins. These birds are partial migrants, species where parts of the overall population are migratory while others remain in place, not like swallows or redstarts whose whole population migrates south. The studies looked at annual numbers reaching Spain using data from recoveries of ringed birds.
Results showed that the numbers of the study species from outside of Spain reaching there in winter has decreased since the 1980s and probably well before. This tendency had to be checked against the species’ overall population numbers in northern Europe to make sure the birds weren’t just getting rarer anyway, and, as they weren’t, this confirmed that these birds are moving less. An understanding of the species’ preferred diet did show some likely patterns since frugivorous (fruit-eating) birds, a group well adapted to tracking changes in food availability, showed sharper reductions in numbers reaching Spain in winter than the more insectivorous species. In addition, larger birds, such as thrushes, less affected by problems of winter temperatures, reduced their migratory movements to the south more than small birds. The results suggest a long-term rearrangement of migratory movements of European birds in which the Mediterranean basin is losing its traditional role as primary wintering ground for many of our birds.
The reduction in numbers of wintering migrant birds in Spain appears to have been taking place since at least the 1970s. However, this reduction may have been in progress earlier, since several partially migratory songbirds began to winter in northern Europe in the mid-twentieth century and earlier. The ability of wintering blackcaps, thrushes and, to a lesser extent, robins to move according to fruit resources is most often observed in their wintering grounds, where their abundances are regulated by the annual availability of fruits. The reported changes in the migratory behaviour of the blackcap, one frugivorous species for which foreign recoveries in Spain has declined despite the sharp increase in the European population, support this interpretation. This change of migratory schedules in blackcaps has been related to this species’ ability to adapt its migratory journeys to increasing food availability offered by urban areas in central Europe and warmer coastal areas like the Channel Islands. Why fly all the way to Spain if you can stay at home or move to someone’s garden?
Partial migratory birds possess the genetic variation required to change from partially migratory to resident in just a few generations, suggesting that, according to current predictions of global warming, such trends will continue to increase the number of sedentary populations in Europe and to reduce the number of overwintering birds in the Mediterranean. In the Channel Islands we have seen big changes in our wintering birds over the last 25 or so years. Fieldfares hardly bother to come here now unless the weather turns really cold whereas the UK is full of them. In their place (but not necessarily in the same habitat) we see lots of chiffchaffs and blackcaps. Interestingly, as reported elsewhere in Europe, our wintering blackcaps are very much a bird of the garden where they hog the feeders rather than out in the wider countryside where they’ll later breed.
What of the true migrants? Well, although this winter we have had several swallows and a wheatear sticking around, these species are unlikely to change their habits very soon.
Read the paper abstracts: