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Bird Migration and Climate

May 10, 2023

Imagine that you had a cabin “Up North”. Yes, I suspect some you do indeed have a cabin well north of Metro Detroit, but just work with me here….

Now let’s say you always take the drive to get there in the spring. But we need to consider that it is not just any time in the spring. Let’s say its May 1st because your family always meets there to celebrate your Grandma Ruth’s Annual Family Get Together.

Let’s say, too, that you have been doing this drive on May 1st for as long as you can remember. This is the day that Grandma Ruth selected and you dare not upset Grandma Ruth!  And your parents did it, too. Every year. Year after year. Get Up North for Grandma Ruth…

Now let’s say the long drive is not a big deal because one hour before you get to the cabin for the party, you can stop at the “greasy spoon” diner and get the best apple pie on the face of the earth. No one has a better pie. Granted, you just like the pie. It’s not you have to have it. You just want it. The really cool part is the diner is open just in time for your arrival. It’s never closed when you make your trip…the first day of May…

But let’s say now that this year Grandma Ruth, for whatever reason, wants the family party on April 28th. So, you load up and hit the road like your parents before you have always done. Only this time, you find that the diner, you know – the one with the best pies in the world, is closed. It’s not their fault. After all, they are ready for pie sales on May 1st. You’re early.

So, you don’t get a pie. Big-whoopity-deal, right? No really. It is a big deal because by the time you get to where the cabin is supposed to be, you find the cabin is not there. Yup, that’s right. The cabin has literally moved but you are not sure where to find it. Maybe its just a few miles up the road. Eventually, you bungle into the family at a new location. After all, they couldn’t find the cabin either. Further, you aren’t just hungry – you’re hangry. Your starvation-induced anger wrecked the day for everybody there. Good job. You just ruined Grandma Ruth’s Annual Family Get Together.

Or, as an alternative ending, after you realize you can’t get a pie, you head to a fast food restaurant for artery-clogging goodness, make it to the party with dear Grandma Ruth, and have a grand time.

I suppose at this point you’re thinking the above narrative is silly story-telling as we try to get you to buy our pies like it’s our restaurant or something. But it’s not silly. Its real. Very real. Sort of.

Let’s say, for example, you are no longer you. You are a bird. Let’s say for the sake of our conversation that you are a small songbird called a Blackburnian Warbler.  You have a weight equal to three quarters (the coin) and you just flew in from northern South America (yes, you can fly that far). You feast on bugs at each stop as you make your way to the boreal forests of Canada. Once there, you find a breeding location, raise a family, and then fly all the way back to Venezuela so you can do it all over again! It’s what you do and have always done. It’s clockwork. Your ancestors did it. Your descendants will do it….


But what if you get to your favorite woodlot en route and find out there are no bugs to be had?  You may find that you may not have enough energy to get to the boreal forests. Even if you get there, the habitat is being altered and becoming less accommodating. Or, you have to fly further north to get the habitat you need. Either you die or you get there and find you can’t raise a family which means you, as a species, will die out, anyhow. Or, you adapt where you hope to find accommodating habitat and food and do the best you can. Long term, the choices are die, die or fly farther/adapt.

Now look closely. The two stories are almost identical. Migration (to the cabin or boreal forest). Food en route (pies or bugs). Loss of habitat (missing cabins or disappearing forest).

Frustratingly, now I have to tell you two things. Sorry, but there is no Grandma Ruth with a cabin up north nor is there a “greasy spoon” diner with killer apple pies. Second, the bird stories are real.

It is confirmed, through the studies of hundreds of bird species over the last 150 years, that global climate change is impacting birds and bird migration both directly and indirectly. 

How so?

As the planet warms, accommodating habitats for songbirds may still exist, but they have moved farther “up the planet” resulting in longer migrations. Longer migrations, in turn, force birds to adjust their timetables and leave days before they used to do so historically. Further, warmer temperatures are causing some plants to flower early. Maybe the insects at the flowers that should be eaten by the birds can respond to this change. Maybe they can’t. The synchronization between birds and the world around them is compromised. They may arrive at a rest stop or a breeding ground only to find the food they expected is no longer available because it went through their cycles before the birds arrived. If the birds decline, for any reason, what’s next?

What impacts bird migration impacts birds. What impacts birds impacts ecosystems. What impacts ecosystems impacts us.

Not long ago, coal miners used canaries while working the tunnels. The premise is that if a poison gas pocket is breached, the bird will die before the miners, thus the dead canary was the sign to evacuate the tunnels. It is a sign of imminent trouble. The miners paid attention to the birds because they had something to say…even in death.

The birds today, like the canaries of yesterday, need to be watched. Today’s birds have lives that are involved and complicated. They not looking for just pieces.  They need the whole pie. And we need to make sure they get it or we can’t have any either…

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