Discover the most talked about and latest scientific content & concepts.

Concept: Bird migration


Consistent with a warming climate, birds are shifting the timing of their migrations, but it remains unclear to what extent these shifts have kept pace with the changing environment. Because bird migration is primarily cued by annually consistent physiological responses to photoperiod, but conditions at their breeding grounds depend on annually variable climate, bird arrival and climate-driven spring events would diverge. We combined satellite and citizen science data to estimate rates of change in phenological interval between spring green-up and migratory arrival for 48 breeding passerine species across North America. Both arrival and green-up changed over time, usually in the same direction (earlier or later). Although birds adjusted their arrival dates, 9 of 48 species did not keep pace with rapidly changing green-up and across all species the interval between arrival and green-up increased by over half a day per year. As green-up became earlier in the east, arrival of eastern breeding species increasingly lagged behind green-up, whereas in the west-where green-up typically became later-birds arrived increasingly earlier relative to green-up. Our results highlight that phenologies of species and trophic levels can shift at different rates, potentially leading to phenological mismatches with negative fitness consequences.

Concepts: Ecology, Bird, Cuckoo, Albatross, Human migration, Seabird, Change, Bird migration


Landbirds undertaking within-continent migrations have the possibility to stop en route, but most long-distance migrants must also undertake large non-stop sea crossings, the length of which can vary greatly. For shorebirds migrating from Iceland to West Africa, the shortest route would involve one of the longest continuous sea crossings while alternative, mostly overland, routes are available. Using geolocators to track the migration of Icelandic whimbrels (Numenius phaeopus), we show that they can complete a round-trip of 11,000 km making two non-stop sea crossings and flying at speeds of up to 24 m s(-1); the fastest recorded for shorebirds flying over the ocean. Although wind support could reduce flight energetic costs, whimbrels faced headwinds up to twice their ground speed, indicating that unfavourable and potentially fatal weather conditions are not uncommon. Such apparently high risk migrations might be more common than previously thought, with potential fitness gains outweighing the costs.

Concepts: Africa, Bird, Human migration, Seabird, Ocean, Wader, Bird migration, Stork


Migratory birds track seasonal resources across and between continents. We propose a general strategy of tracking the broad seasonal abundance of resources throughout the annual cycle in the longest-distance migrating land birds as an alternative to tracking a certain climatic niche or shorter-term resource surplus occurring, for example, during spring foliation. Whether and how this is possible for complex annual spatiotemporal schedules is not known. New tracking technology enables unprecedented spatial and temporal mapping of long-distance movement of birds. We show that three Palearctic-African species track vegetation greenness throughout their annual cycle, adjusting the timing and direction of migratory movements with seasonal changes in resource availability over Europe and Africa. Common cuckoos maximize the vegetation greenness, whereas red-backed shrikes and thrush nightingales track seasonal surplus in greenness. Our results demonstrate that the longest-distance migrants move between consecutive staging areas even within the wintering region in Africa to match seasonal variation in regional climate. End-of-century climate projections indicate that optimizing greenness would be possible but that vegetation surplus might be more difficult to track in the future.

Concepts: Africa, Bird, Climate change, Europe, Cuckoo, Human migration, Season, Bird migration


Migrating birds follow innate species-specific migration programs capable of guiding them along complex spatio-temporal routes, which may include several separate staging areas. Indeed, migration routes of common cuckoos Cuculus canorus show little variation between individuals; yet, satellite tracks of 11 experimentally displaced adults revealed an unexpected flexibility in individual navigation responses. The birds compensated for the translocation to unfamiliar areas by travelling toward population-specific staging areas, demonstrating true navigation capabilities. Individual responses varied from travelling toward the first stopover in northern Europe to flying toward the Central-African winter grounds, the latter including several stopovers in unfamiliar areas. Apparently, the cuckoos possess spatial knowledge far beyond their population-specific flyway scale, and make individual decisions likely based on an assessment of perceived gain and cost of alternative route options.

Concepts: Cancer, Bird, Cuckoo, Spaceflight, Bird migration, Common Cuckoo, Cuculus, Flyway


Drowning is infrequently reported as a cause of death of wild birds and such incidents typically involve individual, rather than multiple, birds. Over a 21-year period (1993 to 2013 inclusive), we investigated 12 incidents of mortality of multiple (2 - 80+) Common starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) in Great Britain that appeared to be due to drowning. More than ten birds were affected in ten of these reported incidents. These incidents always occurred during the spring and early summer months and usually involved juvenile birds. In all cases, circumstantial evidence and post-mortem examinations indicated drowning to be the most likely cause of death with no underlying disease found. A behavioural explanation seems likely, possibly related to the gregarious nature of this species combined with juvenile inexperience in identifying water hazards. A review of data from the ringed bird recovery scheme across Great Britain (1909-2013 inclusive) of both starlings and Common blackbirds (Turdus merula), also a common garden visitor, identified additional suspected drowning incidents, which were significantly more common in the former species, supporting a species predisposition to drowning. For each species there was a marked seasonal peak from April to August. Drowning should be included as a differential diagnosis when investigating incidents of multiple starling mortality, especially of juveniles.

Concepts: Death, Bird, Autopsy, Evidence, Circumstantial evidence, European Starling, Starling, Bird migration


Large numbers of metallic starlings (Aplonis metallica) migrate annually from New Guinea to the rainforests of tropical Australia, where they nest communally in single emergent trees (up to 1,000 birds). These aggregations create dense and species-rich faunal “hot-spots”, attracting a diverse assemblage of local consumers that utilise this seasonal resource. The starlings nested primarily in poison-dart trees (Antiaris toxicaria) near the rainforest-woodland boundary. Surveys underneath these colonies revealed that bird-derived nutrients massively increased densities of soil invertebrates and mammals (primarily wild pigs) beneath trees, year-round. Flying invertebrates, nocturnal birds, reptiles, and amphibians congregated beneath the trees when starlings were nesting (the wet-season). Diurnal birds (primarily cockatoos and bush turkeys) aggregated beneath the trees during the dry-season to utilise residual nutrients when the starlings were not nesting. The abundance of several taxa was considerably higher (to > 1000-fold) under colony trees than under nearby trees. The system strikingly resembles utilisation of bird nesting colonies by predators in other parts of the world but this spectacular system has never been described, emphasizing the continuing need for detailed natural-history studies in tropical Australia.

Concepts: Ecology, Bird, Reptile, Papua New Guinea, Rainforest, Bird migration, Bird nest, Aplonis


Long-distance migratory organisms are under strong selection to migrate quickly. Stopovers demand more time than flying and are used by individuals to refuel during migration, but the effect of fuel loads (fat) acquired at stopover sites on the subsequent pace of migration has not been quantified. We studied stopover behaviour of Grey-cheeked Thrush (Catharus minimus) at a site in northern Colombia and then tracked their migration using an intercontinental radio-telemetry array. Tracking confirmed long-distance flights of more than 3000 km, highlighting the key importance of a single stopover site to the migration strategy of this species. Our results suggest that these songbirds behave as time-minimizers as predicted by optimal migration theory, and that fuel loads acquired at this South American stopover site, together with departure date, carry-over to influence the pace of migration, contributing to differences in travel time of up to 30 days in birds subsequently detected in the U. S. and Canada. Such variation in the pace of migration arising from a single stopover site, likely has important fitness consequences and suggests that identifying important fuelling sites will be essential to effectively conserve migratory species.

Concepts: Gene, Bird, Songbird, Bird migration, Catharus, Veery, Catharus thrushes, Grey-cheeked Thrush


Globally, billions of flying animals undergo seasonal migrations, many of which occur at night. The temporal and spatial scales at which migrations occur and our inability to directly observe these nocturnal movements makes monitoring and characterizing this critical period in migratory animals' life cycles difficult. Remote sensing, therefore, has played an important role in our understanding of large-scale nocturnal bird migrations. Weather surveillance radar networks in Europe and North America have great potential for long-term low-cost monitoring of bird migration at scales that have previously been impossible to achieve. Such long-term monitoring, however, poses a number of challenges for the ornithological and ecological communities: how does one take advantage of this vast data resource, integrate information across multiple sensors and large spatial and temporal scales, and visually represent the data for interpretation and dissemination, considering the dynamic nature of migration? We assembled an interdisciplinary team of ecologists, meteorologists, computer scientists, and graphic designers to develop two different flow visualizations, which are interactive and open source, in order to create novel representations of broad-front nocturnal bird migration to address a primary impediment to long-term, large-scale nocturnal migration monitoring. We have applied these visualization techniques to mass bird migration events recorded by two different weather surveillance radar networks covering regions in Europe and North America. These applications show the flexibility and portability of such an approach. The visualizations provide an intuitive representation of the scale and dynamics of these complex systems, are easily accessible for a broad interest group, and are biologically insightful. Additionally, they facilitate fundamental ecological research, conservation, mitigation of human-wildlife conflicts, improvement of meteorological products, and public outreach, education, and engagement.

Concepts: Ecology, Weather, Bird, Cuckoo, Human migration, Bird migration, Bird flight, Ornithology


Excessive or misdirected artificial light at night (ALAN) produces light pollution that influences several aspects of the biology and ecology of birds, including disruption of circadian rhythms and disorientation during flight. Many migrating birds traverse large expanses of land twice every year at night when ALAN illuminates the sky. Considering the extensive and increasing encroachment of light pollution around the world, we evaluated the association of the annual mean ALAN intensity over land within the geographic ranges of 298 nocturnally migrating bird species with five factors: phase of annual cycle, mean distance between breeding and non-breeding ranges, range size, global hemisphere of range, and IUCN category of conservation concern. Light pollution within geographic ranges was relatively greater during the migration season, for shorter-distance migrants, for species with smaller ranges, and for species in the western hemisphere. Our results suggest that migratory birds may be subject to the effects of light pollution particularly during migration, the most critical stage in their annual cycle. We hope these results will spur further research on how light pollution affects not only migrating birds, but also other highly mobile animals throughout their annual cycle.

Concepts: Bird, Cuckoo, Albatross, Seabird, Lighting, Light pollution, Bird migration, Bird flight


Migratory birds can use a variety of environmental cues for orientation. A primary calibration between the celestial and magnetic compasses seems to be fundamental prior to a bird’s first autumn migration. Releasing hand-raised or rescued young birds back into the wild might therefore be a problem because they might not have established a functional orientation system during their first calendar year. Here, we test whether hand-raised European robins that did not develop any functional compass before or during their first autumn migration could relearn to orient if they were exposed to natural celestial cues during the subsequent winter and spring. When tested in the geomagnetic field without access to celestial cues, these birds could orient in their species-specific spring migratory direction. In contrast, control birds that were deprived of any natural celestial cues throughout remained unable to orient. Our experiments suggest that European robins are still capable of establishing a functional orientation system after their first autumn. Although the external reference remains speculative, most likely, natural celestial cues enabled our birds to calibrate their magnetic compass. Our data suggest that avian compass systems are more flexible than previously believed and have implications for the release of hand-reared migratory birds.

Concepts: Earth's magnetic field, Bird, Orientation, Compass, Bird migration, European Robin, Erithacus