U of M researchers make surprising discovery about bird migration

WINNIPEG — Researchers at the University of Manitoba have made a surprising discovery about bird migration, which could help birds adapt to climate change.

Migrating bird populations have steeply declined since the 1960s with an estimated three billion lost, according to ornithologists.

Kevin Fraser, a U of M biological sciences professor, said researchers believe climate change is one of the main issues.

“Birds can’t keep up with the pace of climate change,” Fraser told CTV News. “That’s what our study was aimed at.”

Climate change leads to spring arriving earlier in North America, while migrating birds 9,000 kilometres away in South America are unaware of the change.

Fraser explained how insects, a primary food source for migrating birds, may already have gone through their lifecycle by the time birds return.

“The birds might be getting back too late to get the number of insects they need to raise a successful nest.”

However, the new finding from U of M’s Avian Behaviour and Conservation Lab could help migrating birds catch up to climate change.

Saeedeh Bani Assadi, a PhD student working with Fraser, found wild purple martins, a type of swallow, can be manipulated into changing the time of their migration.

Assadi hung LED light strips in the nests of wild purple martins, and, in effect, influenced the birds’ perspective of day-length.

Birds exposed to only natural light migrated south at a typical time, but researchers discovered the manipulated birds flew south later than usual.

“What [Assadi] found, amazingly, is that the birds were a little flexible to the timing of year they thought it was based on day-length,” Fraser explained.

The impact of the discovery could help influence birds to return north earlier in the spring when food supply is at its peak, and Fraser said the research could eventually reintroduce migratory birds through captive-release programs to areas where they were previously lost.

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