U of M researchers could help migrating birds keep pace with climate change

A research team at the University of Manitoba is making headway on helping migratory birds at risk of population decline adjust to climate change.

In a study published Wednesday, PhD student Saeedeh Bani Assadi along with biological sciences professor Kevin Fraser suggested they were able to instill new migration times in nestling purple martins by changing their day lengths with programmable lights in their nest boxes.

“We think that a lot of the timing might be sort of innate … and that sort of prescribing most of what they’re doing,” Fraser told CJOB on Thursday.

“With our research, we were trying to see if, ‘Well, is there anything extra? … Do they have any extra flexibility to the kind of conditions that they might face now with climate change?’ That’s what some of our recent research has been aimed at.”

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“This helps us to see the potential for an assisted evolution approach to solving bird’s timing problems, where we may be able to intervene to help birds keep up with the pace of climate change,” Bani Assadi said in a news release Thursday.

Read more: Climate change in our backyard: Manitoba begins to grapple with the consequences

The researchers say birds like purple martins must alter the timing of their migration with the pace of climate change, so they don’t miss out on feeding opportunities.

“Birds that feed on insects in the air — aerial insectivores — they’re declining the most steeply,” Fraser said. “Across the board, we’re seeing that birds that are migratory we’re losing more quickly than birds that more resident.”

With climate change likely ushering in earlier springs, unknowing migrating birds that have overwintered thousands of kilometres away may arrive too late for the essential insects they need to survive, which could affect bird populations, ultimately also upsetting ecosystems.

“Birds that need to get to their breeding sites to find, for example, lots of insect prey to keep their young well fed, to be able to fledge lots of young, need to kind of time their migration and arrival to when they can meet those sort of peak resources and the peak amount of prey,” Fraser said.

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Leaving these migratory changes up to evolution, without potential solutions, could take bird populations decades to adapt, the team says.

“These results help us to see the potential for an assisted evolution approach to help solve the mismatches we see between bird timing and their new environment with climate change,” Fraser said in the release.

North America has already lost a substantial number of bird populations — around three billion land birds lost since the 1960s, the release says.

The researchers say their findings could open up further possibilities for using adaptive timing through captive-release programs.

“We’re going to continue to explore it in other avian species and sort of see, just learn more about how flexible they might be with change and sort of think about ways that we might be able to, to help them adapt more quickly to the kind of massive and quick changes that we’re seeing,” Fraser said.

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