eBird Trends maps reveal dramatic northward range shifts in Eastern species

Over a year ago, on a webinar hosted by the Washington Ornithological Society (WOS), John Fitzpatrick of Cornell Lab of Ornithology teased us with some screenshots of eBird Trends maps. I was mesmerized. Now, they have been released here at the eBird Science tab. These remarkable maps illustrate population trends for each species across their range, showing exactly where they are increasing (blue dots) or decreasing (red dots).

They do more than that, actually. The color of the dot is correlated to the rate of change — the % change between 2007 and 2021. Dark blue means really increasing; dark red really declining. The size of each dot is correlated to the size of the population in that area (or “relative abundance” in eBird lingo). Big dots mean there’s a lot of birds there, regardless of whether they are increasing or decreasing. If you hover over a dot, the actual numbers pop up. White dots mean the data are inconclusive or show no trend. You can read more of the details at the site, and perhaps I’ll discuss methodology on a later post.

Here’s the amazing thing — each dot represents a 27 x 27 km (16.7 x 16.7 mile) grid square, so just a bit larger than a Christmas Bird Count circle, which are 15 miles in diameter. That’s a remarkable level of detail. I joke that there’s more information in these maps than in all the ornithological research in the last ten years. That’s an overstatement, of course, because professional ornithologists study things that eBirders don’t. Nevertheless, these maps take crowdsourced data collection and present it in ways that are instantly useful for understanding species population trends at a granular level. This has profound implications for targeting conservation.

So, on to my first of probably many posts looking at these maps. My first peruse suggests they strongly support what the climate change research has been saying — that resident and short-distance migrants are shifting their ranges north. Let’s start with some common eastern species.

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To examine each map in detail, go to eBird’s Trends page, type in the species name, and then click “Trends” to the right of the species’ name.

Until now, most of the published literature on northward range shifts have been meta-analyses with conclusions such as “non-migratory species are shifting north by so many km per year”, but no maps, nor even mention of species by name. Here, we get the details in bright colors, at the species and even county level. Wow.

A few observations. For many species, they are declining where they are still common (the red dots are large), and increasing where they are less common or even rare (the blue dots are small). This probably implies that their overall population is declining. It also suggests that climate change may be hurting them in the south faster than it is helping them in the north. It takes time to establish new populations, and/or the new regions may not be as suitable as their old home. Note also that each of these species have different transition isoclines (if that’s what one would call it). For example, Red-bellied Woodpecker and Carolina Wren are increasing in Tennessee, but Tufted Titmouse are declining there.

Here are some relevant papers regarding range shifts in eastern species, but again, these maps communicate their results in new and vibrant ways:

Prince, K. and B. Zuckerberg. 2016. Climate change in our backyards: the reshuffling of North America’s winter bird communities. Global Change Biology 21(2): 572-585. We conclude that a shifting winter climate has provided an opportunity for smaller, southerly distributed species to colonize new regions and promote the formation of unique winter bird assemblages throughout eastern North America.

Rushing, C.S. et al. 2020. Migratory behavior and winter geography drive differential range shifts of eastern birds in response to recent climate change. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences117(23), pp.12897-12903. Since the early 1970s, species that remain in North America throughout the year, including both resident and migratory species, appear to have responded to climate change through both colonization of suitable area at the northern leading edge of their breeding distributions and adaption in place at the southern trailing edges.

Saunders et al. 2022. Unraveling a century of global change impacts on winter bird distributions in the eastern United States. Global Change Biology We conclude that climate has generally governed the winter occurrence of avifauna in space and time, while [habitat] change has played a pivotal role in driving distributional dynamics of species with limited and declining habitat availability.

The maps also support some of my previous blog posts: such as the northward expansion of Northern Cardinal, Carolina Wren, Tufted Titmouse, and Red-bellied Woodpecker, the crash of Florida’s white-eyed Eastern Towhees, certain range expansions of the Lesser Goldfinch and California Scrub-Jay, the expansion of many species from California into the Pacific Northwest, and the failure of oak-dependent species (e.g. Oak Titmouse and Nuttall’s Woodpecker) to go anywhere.

In future posts, I’ll look at range shifts in resident birds of the West, the impact of California’s fires (many encompassing several of these Trends dots), long-distance migrants, nationwide species, waterbirds, and seabirds, among other things.

Heading south for winter, more birds are choosing the Pacific Northwest

Many papers predict that bird ranges will shift northward with a warming climate (Wu et al 2018, Langham et al 2015).

Many studies have already documented that this is happening (Illán et al. 2014, Virkkala, R. and A. Lehikoinen 2014, Hitch and Leberg 2007, and La Sorte and Thompson 2007).

And some have documented poleward range shifts specifically for wintering ranges (Saunders et al 2022, Hampton 2019, Paprocki et al 2017, Prince and  Zuckerberg 2016, and Paprocki et al 2014).

I’ve previously written about an increase in insectivore bird species in winter associated with a warming climate in the Sacramento Valley. As the Putah Creek Christmas Bird Count (CBC) compiler, it was hard not to notice the trends. Cassin’s Vireo, Black-throated Gray and Townsend’s Warblers, and Western Tanagers were becoming more expected in winter. We had crossed a threshold; we didn’t get freezes anymore. My bougainvillea and cape honeysuckle, which previously clung to life in winter, were now growing and blooming year-round. Fruit and insects were available to these birds.

Now in Port Townsend, Washington, we set a local CBC record for Yellow-rumped Warblers last year. This caused me to take a closer look at the data, focusing on Passerines that are rare or uncommon, and at the northern edge of their wintering range. They are: Hermit Thrush, Cedar Waxwing, Lincoln’s Sparrow, White-crowned Sparrow, Orange-crowned Warbler, and Yellow-rumped Warbler. For each of these, the PNW is at the northern limits of their wintering range.

I looked at their numbers and trends on the Portland, Olympia, Seattle, Bellingham, and Vancouver BC CBCs since the 76th CBC (winter 1975-76). I’ve got more notes on my methodology at the end.

Results

All have increased since 1975, generally with the uptick beginning in the 1990s. Here are the results of my inquiry.

The range maps are from eBird’s Abundance Maps. Red=summer; blue=winter; purple=year-round; yellow=migration. The graphs show the birds per party hour across the five CBCs, taking the total number of birds and dividing by the total number of hours across all five counts.

Hermit Thrush

Hermit Thrush has been increasing at a rate of 4.2% per year across all the CBCs. It has been increasing across all five of the counts, most strongly in Vancouver (4.1% annual growth) and most tepid in Seattle (0.6%). The overall average   It is most common on the Portland count, which has averaged 26 Hermit Thrushes per count since 2009.

Cedar Waxwing

Of the six species I focused on, Cedar Waxwing showed some of the most erratic growth, averaging only 2.5% per year. That said, it has been above average 8 of the last 9 years. To illustrate the unpredictable nature of waxwings, they have actually been declining on the Olympia (-2.3%/yr) and Vancouver (-4.1%/yr) counts. They are increasing the most on the Portland count (3.0%/yr).

Lincoln’s Sparrow

Lincoln’s Sparrow has been increasing steadily, from near zero, at an overall rate of 3.6% per year. To put this in perspective, these five CBCs tallied 5 or fewer individuals, summed across all counts, in each of the first five years of this analysis. In each of the last five years, these counts, in aggregate, tallied between 34 and 52 individuals. Growth has been strongest on the Olympia count (4.6%/yr) and weakest on the Bellingham count (1.7%/yr).

White-crowned Sparrow

Despite the eBird map, White-crowned Sparrow is a regular overwintering species in the PNW. The five counts, in aggregate, tally between 100 and 750 individuals each year. They’ve been increasing at a rate of 1.8% per year, strongest in Seattle (3.1%/yr) and weakest in Vancouver (-2.5%/yr, the only count with declining numbers).

Orange-crowned Warbler

Orange-crowned Warbler has seen dramatic increases, averaging 5.0% per year, highest in Olympia (7.2%/yr) and lowest in Bellingham (3.2%/yr). The numbers, however, are still small. Aggregate numbers across all counts were zero five of the first eleven years of this analysis (easily seen on the graph). Double digits were not reached until 1999. The last ten years, however, have averaged 15 individuals across all the counts, making this an expected species in winter now.  

Yellow-rumped Warbler

Yellow-rumped Warbler wins the award for poster child of species increasing in winter at the northern edge of their wintering range. They’ve been increasing at a rate of 5.3% per year. Interestingly, this growth is concentrated in the south. Portland (3.7%/yr), Olympia (3.4%/yr), and Seattle (6.1%/yr) have seen the most growth, while Bellingham (-0.5%) and Vancouver (-5.0%) have seen declines. Perhaps those Fraser River winds are too cold for warblers. 

Methodology

The data includes bird per party hour for the Portland, Olympia, Seattle, Bellingham, and Vancouver BC Christmas Bird Counts from the 75th count (winter 1975-76) to the 120th count (winter 2019-20). The 121st count was impacted by the pandemic.

CBC (and Breeding Bird Survey) data is uniquely advantageous for looking at long-term trends such as climate change, as they both go back many decades with generally similar effort over time (for certain well-established counts). Nevertheless, there were some issues with this data:

  • I did not use the Portland data from the 76th thru the 82nd count, due to aberrantly low party hours relative to later counts.
  • The following data was missing entirely from the Audubon CBC database: Olympia 76th, 77th, 78th, 84th, 104th, and 110th counts; and Seattle 91st count.
  • The following counts had no (or obviously incorrect) data for party hours: Portland 104th count; Bellingham 111th, 112th, and 119th counts. Because they did have bird numbers, I approximated the party hours based on their counts in nearby years. I used 230 party hours for the Portland count and 200 party hours for the Bellingham counts.

Other climate-related bird changes in the Pacific Northwest

I’ve previously blogged about climate change and birds in the Pacific Northwest:

The invasion of the Pacific Northwest: California’s birds expand north with warmer winters looks at northward range expansions of Great Egret, Turkey Vulture, Red-shouldered Hawk, Anna’s Hummingbird, Black Phoebe, Townsend’s Warbler, and California Scrub-Jay, with some discussion of others as well. Note that Townsend’s Warbler, as a migrant that winters rarely in the PNW, fits with the group of birds described in this post.

The song of the Lesser Goldfinch: Another harbinger of a warming climate looks at increasing records in the PNW in summer.

Mapping the expansion of the California Scrub-Jay into the Pacific Northwest looks at the steady range expansion of this non-migratory species.

References

Hampton, S. 2019. Avian responses to rapid climate change: Examples from the Putah Creek Christmas Bird Count. Central Valley Birds 22(4): 77-89.

Hitch and Leberg. 2007. Breeding distributions of North American bird species moving north as a result of climate change. Conservation Biology 21(2): 534-9.

Illán et al. 2014. Precipitation and winter temperature predict long-term range-scale abundance changes in Western North American birds. Global Change Biology, 20 (11), 3351–3364.

Langham et al 2015. Conservation status of North American birds in the face of future climate change. PLoS ONE 10(9): e0135350.

La Sorte, F.A., and F.R. Thompson III. 2007. Poleward shifts in winter ranges of North American birds. Ecology 88(7):1803–1812.

Paprocki et al. 2014. Regional Distribution Shifts Help Explain Local Changes in Wintering Raptor Abundance: Implications for Interpreting Population Trends. PLoS ONE 9(1): e86814.

Paprocki et al. 2017. Combining migration and wintering counts to enhance understanding of population change in a generalist raptor species, the North American Red-tailed Hawk. The Condor, 119 (1): 98–107.

Prince, K. and B. Zuckerberg. 2016. Climate change in our backyards: the reshuffling of North America’s winter bird communities. Global Change Biology 21(2): 572-585.

Saunders et al. 2022. Unraveling a century of global change impacts on winter bird distributions in the eastern United States. Global Change Biology

Virkkala, R. and A. Lehikoinen 2014. Patterns of climate-induced density shifts of species: poleward shifts faster in northern boreal birds than in southern birds. Global Change Biology 20: 2995–3003.

Wu et al. 2018. Projected avifaunal responses to climate change across the U.S. National Park System. PLOS ONE 13(3): e0190557.

I try to maintain an updated list of references at the Birds and Climate Change Facebook group. At that page, click on Files to find the list.

A Nazca Booby, a tug, a barge, and a pit: A climate parable

At 9:30am on August 17, that is, yesterday, I got a text from another birder. A Nazca Booby had just been seen from Discovery Point near Seattle. What’s more, we knew exactly where the bird was now; it was perched on the bow of a barge being pulled by the tug Seaspan Raider.

The Nazca Booby, atop the barge, photographed by Matt Stolmeier, captain for Outer Island Excursions.

The Nazca Booby is a tropical seabird that breeds exclusively on the Galapagos Islands. When not nesting, it occurs at sea in the eastern Pacific, generally between central Mexico and northern Peru.

Breeding (orange) and non-breeding (blue) range of the Nazca Booby.

This was Washington’s third record. The first, quite possibly the same bird, was on August 14, 2020, in pretty much the same part of Puget Sound. The second was a few weeks ago also off Seattle. That one was an immature, not an adult, so we know it was a different individual. It then showed up off Victoria, providing Canada with its third record.

The Nazca Booby first arrived in the United States in California in 2013. I actually played a role in that first record, a dead beachcast bird found in the aftermath of an oil spill. Working for the state’s spill response, I brought it to the attention of the California Bird Records Committee and had experts examine the carcass for identification. That bird was not a one-off event; it was the beginning of an invasion. There were a few scattered records in the following years, followed by an explosion of 26 records in 2018 and 21 in 2019. After that, California removed the species from its “review list”. While some of these records may have been the same individuals, it is remarkable that a tropical bird previously unheard-of in the US was suddenly widespread. Oregon got its first two records in 2018 and 2019.

Sea surface temperature (SST) of 66.1F off the Washington/Oregon coast.

Checking sea surface temperatures, I see that the water off the Washington and Oregon coasts is reaching 66F in places, only 4F cooler than on the south side of the Galapagos. Zooming out, it is easy to see a route from there to here where the bird never had to encounter sea surface temps under 60F. The Strait of Juan de Fuca is in the low 50s, but it does approach 60F near Seattle.

I opened the MarineTraffic app and quickly located the Seaspan Raider. It was southwest of Edmunds, northbound at 7.3 knots. I calculated it would arrive off Port Townsend between 1 and 2pm. Birders scrambled, heading to various coastal promontories on both sides of Puget Sound. I headed to Point Wilson, where Puget Sound effectively ends and meets the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The tug, bound for Canada, would have to pass by me here.

Reports came in. The bird had flown off the barge. It was in the water off Edmunds. It took off. It was seen from both sides. No one knew where it was.

Tracking the tug using the MarineTraffic app.

This wasn’t the only booby in the Salish Sea at the moment. A Brown Booby had been photographed a few days earlier near the San Juans. That was yet another tropical seabird that had already invaded the US, with records from over forty states, including Alaska. Two decades ago, this would have been unimaginable. And this summer, 2022, was already noteworthy across the Midwest and East Coast for the mass invasion of waterbirds typically found only in Florida or the Gulf Coast. Limpkins, Wood Storks, White Ibis, Roseate Spoonbills and many others were showing up hundreds of miles north of their previously known ranges.

Scrolling thru the American Birding Association Rare Bird Alert nationwide posts, limited to just mega-rarities, here is what pops up: Brown Booby in Oklahoma, Neotropic Cormorant in North Carolina, Brown Booby in Wisconsin, two Swallow-tailed Kites in Ohio, Limpkin in Wisconsin, Neotropic Cormorant in Michigan, White Ibis in New York, Wood Stork in Pennsylvania, Heermann’s Gull in Alaska, Limpkin in Illinois, Nazca Booby in California, White Ibis in Nebraska, etc. And that doesn’t even get us back to August 1. These are all birds, mostly aquatic birds, well north of their normal ranges.

Our current rate of climate warming hasn’t been seen since the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM) 55 million years ago. Then, there were alligators within the Arctic Circle. Kind of like Nazca Boobies are now a thing in Puget Sound. Actually, our current rate of warming is much faster than then. During the PETM, the climate warmed 5C in five thousand years. The current rate of warming is eighteen times faster. Then, no one would have noticed. Now, there is 1C of warming – and, with it, dramatic changes in climate and ecology – within the lifespan of a single bird. Some seabirds are showing us that they can keep up, thanks to their ability to fly long distances. I’m not sure about the alligators. Or birds that depend, say, on oak trees. The birds can fly, but the oaks can’t.

Two hours passed. I was ready to give up and head home, my only consolation being “MAMU CF”, a Marbled Murrelet making a provisioning flight across the Sound, carrying a fish to its single chick somewhere on a moss-covered Doug fir branch a hundred feet above the forest floor, probably in the Olympic Mountains. I’d only seen that once before. Much of their range in California has been lost to fires in the past five years, so this Olympic chick is important.

The original photo of the Nazca Booby on the barge, by Alex Meilleur.

One birder, who was unable to search for the Nazca Booby, called some of the local orca boats, as he worked on some of them. He let them know about the bird, as some were near it. About twenty minutes later, texts came in. They had re-found it! It was back on the same barge, now approaching Marrowstone Point. I spun my scope south. There, beyond the ferry lane, I could make out the red and white structure of the Seaspan Raider, pulling its barge, all blurry and shimmering in the distant heat mirage, slowly chugging toward me.

Taking advantage of the outgoing tide, the Seaspan Raider was now hitting 9 knots. It is powered by two Niigata 6m G25HX diesel engines. I don’t know what kind of gas mileage it gets, but, because it presumably refueled in Washington, most of its fuel is likely conventional diesel, but a small component may be renewable diesel.

Renewable diesel is not the same as biodiesel. Biodiesel can be mixed with conventional diesel, but only in very small amounts, like 2%. Renewable diesel, on the other hand, is molecularly identical to conventional diesel. It’s a relatively new invention. Made from non-petroleum sources, such as plant and animal material, it is to conventional diesel what corn syrup is to sugar; it is a “drop-in ready” alternative fuel. It can be mixed with or substituted for conventional diesel seamlessly, with no change in gas pumps, pipelines, or engines. In fact, it burns slightly cleaner, so engines last longer. It emits fewer particulates and, most importantly, its greenhouse gas footprint is up to 80% less. Its use is already widespread in California, where two of the state’s largest refineries no longer take petroleum crude.

This is the kind of thing that should have been developed thirty years ago, just after James Hansen of NOAA briefed congress on climate change in 1986. Now it’s late. We’ve already had more than 1C of climate warming, with more coming and probably ten feet of sea level rise built into the system. Stopping carbon emissions is no longer a suitable goal. We’ve already pushed the cart down the ramp. It’s rolling. We need to reverse climate change, to change that ramp so the cart rolls back to where it was. That will require actually sucking CO2 out of the air – negative emissions – which will certainly take a hundred years under the most optimistic scenarios. So get ready for more boobies, maybe even Limpkins and alligators.

Aside about Washington: Washington further delayed action a few years ago when the Department of Ecology required an Environmental Impact Statement from Phillips 66 to convert their refinery at Cherry Point to make renewable diesel. That is to say, Phillips needed to jump through major permitting hurdles because they were changing – that is, reducing — their greenhouse gas emissions. Phillips didn’t want to wait the several years required for this, so they promptly moved their operation to California. Governor Inslee tried to intervene and save the project, but it was too late. Now BP is picking up the baton in Washington.

Renewable diesel is already in widespread use in trucks, especially in California. The ferries in San Francisco Bay are powered exclusively by it. Because diesel is similar to jet fuel, and made during the same refining process, refineries also produce what is called sustainable aviation fuel (SAF). Aircraft are currently permitted to fly with up to a 50/50 blend of SAF and conventional jet fuel. Boeing promises jets that can fly with 100% SAF by 2030. We’ll be approaching 1.5C of warming by then. Nazca Booby will almost certainly be off the rare bird review list, at least in California. Brown Boobies will be breeding on the Farallones and prospecting further north.

I watched as orca boats came and went from the barge, photographing the Nazca Booby. I was told it was on the starboard side of the roof of the little structure on the bow. The tug and barge continued up Admiralty Inlet until it was straight out from me, as close as it would pass. Slightly more than halfway across the channel, it remained blurred in heat mirage. I could see fuzzy white dots on the described rooftop, but I couldn’t tell you if they were Nazca Boobies or gulls or volleyballs. In birder’s lingo, this was going to be a ‘dip’, even though I knew exactly where the bird was and was looking at it.

My view of the tug, barge, and bird.

Mathematically, this would be at least the sixth time a Nazca Booby had passed this point, my point, my sea watch. And this time I was here, ready and waiting, and still I couldn’t see it. Were it not for the texts and the orca boats, I’d never know it was there. I kept my scope glued to it, hoping it would lift off in a distinctive flight and head directly toward me, where it would join the Caspian Terns and plunge dive right in front of me as I clicked my camera in ecstasy. But it didn’t. The tug and barge chugged north.

The bird was last seen at Partridge Point on Whidbey Island, still riding the barge. It was off the barge by Rosario Inlet. I’m guessing it jumped ship and headed toward Victoria or Smith Island.

The barge’s destination was the Lafarge Texada Quarrying Ltd. limestone mine north of Vancouver. Limestone is critical to making cement. The cement-making process is responsible for 8% of the world’s carbon emissions. Part of that is from the energy used in production, which requires a kiln heated to 1,400 degrees Celsius. But most of the emissions comes from the limestone itself. Forty percent of the weight of limestone is CO2, and this is burned off in the process. There are efforts to improve the cement-making process, to make it less dependent on limestone, to reduce its carbon emissions. That’s all coming in the future.

The limestone mine at Beale Cove, the barge’s destination.

I’m wondering about the ancient Nazca civilization in what is now Peru. It was dependent on a remarkable network of underground aqueducts that delivered mountain water to their arid home. There’s a theory that they over-harvested a certain tree, which led to erosion of riversides during heavy rains, destroying their water delivery system. I wonder if they had meetings about the problem, if they had new policies in effect, at least at the end, when it was too late.

It’s supposed to be 95F in the Seattle suburbs today. I’m not worried about missing this Nazca Booby. There will be more.

The Nazca Booby on the bow. I’m sure the scope views were better. Photo by Laura Brou.

Northward expansion of Northern Cardinal, Carolina Wren, Tufted Titmouse, and Red-bellied Woodpecker

A number of recent academic papers have described northward shifts of bird species in both North America and Europe, driven by climate change. These papers usually present aggregated results from dozens of species; they rarely provide details for any specific species. These maps are intended to offer that.

While there are tremendous species-specific differences, non-migratory resident birds (such as Northern Cardinal, Carolina Wren, Tufted Titmouse, and Red-bellied Woodpecker) appear to be the most adaptable and have expanded their ranges the most. This seems to be primarily driven by warmer winters and, for some species, is further augmented by bird feeders.

I created these maps using eBird, so the usual caveats apply– they don’t necessarily include all records (though many historical out-of-range records are indeed included), and eBird reporting, which became widespread only after 2010, continues to increase dramatically each year. To draw the lines, my intent was to capture the primary range area — and more — but I deliberately excluded the furthest ten to fifteen outliers for each line.

CLICK TO ENLARGE GRAPHICS

Northern Cardinals (once called Kentucky Cardinals) have been expanding north for decades, but have increased their rate.
Carolina Wren is a classic example of a species knocked back by harsh winters, finding some refuge around bird feeders, and then continuing to expand in warmer winters. See a graph of this at my previous post here.
Like many species, Tufted Titmouse has especially expanded northeast up the St. Lawrence River corridor.
To get a feel for what this expansion actually looks like in one place, see the graphs below from Christmas Bird Counts. Similar graphs could be made for all of these species.

For some examples of western species expanding north from California and southern Oregon into the Pacific Northwest, see this post: The invasion of the Pacific Northwest: California’s birds expand north with warmer winters.

I invite you to join the Facebook group dedicated to this topic: Birds and Climate Change.

Two of the academic papers that report climate-driven range expansions in eastern North America are listed below, along with their abstracts.

Prince, K. and B. Zuckerberg. 2016. Climate change in our backyards: the reshuffling of North America’s winter bird communities. Global Change Biology 21(2): 572-585.

Much of the recent changes in North American climate have occurred during the winter months, and as result, overwintering birds represent important sentinels of anthropogenic climate change. While there is mounting evidence that bird populations are responding to a warming climate (e.g., poleward shifts) questions remain as to whether these species-specific responses are resulting in community-wide changes. Here, we test the hypothesis that a changing winter climate should favor the formation of winter bird communities dominated by warm-adapted species. To do this, we quantified changes in community composition using a functional index–the Community Temperature Index (CTI)–which measures the balance between low- and high-temperature dwelling species in a community. Using data from Project FeederWatch, an international citizen science program, we quantified spatiotemporal changes in winter bird communities (n = 38 bird species) across eastern North America and tested the influence of changes in winter minimum temperature over a 22-year period. We implemented a jackknife analysis to identify those species most influential in driving changes at the community level and the population dynamics (e.g., extinction or colonization) responsible for these community changes. Since 1990, we found that the winter bird community structure has changed with communities increasingly composed of warm-adapted species. This reshuffling of winter bird communities was strongest in southerly latitudes and driven primarily by local increases in abundance and regional patterns of colonization by southerly birds. CTI tracked patterns of changing winter temperature at different temporal scales ranging from 1 to 35 years. We conclude that a shifting winter climate has provided an opportunity for smaller, southerly distributed species to colonize new regions and promote the formation of unique winter bird assemblages throughout eastern North America.

Saunders et al. 2022. Unraveling a century of global change impacts on winter bird distributions in the eastern United States. Global Change Biology

One of the most pressing questions in ecology and conservation centers on disentangling the relative impacts of concurrent global change drivers, climate and land-use/land-cover (LULC), on biodiversity. Yet studies that evaluate the effects of both drivers on species’ winter distributions remain scarce, hampering our ability to develop full-annual-cycle conservation strategies. Additionally, understanding how groups of species differentially respond to climate versus LULC change is vital for efforts to enhance bird community resilience to future environmental change. We analyzed long-term changes in winter occurrence of 89 species across nine bird groups over a 90-year period within the eastern United States using Audubon Christmas Bird Count (CBC) data. We estimated variation in occurrence probability of each group as a function of spatial and temporal variation in winter climate (minimum temperature, cumulative precipitation) and LULC (proportion of group-specific and anthropogenic habitats within CBC circle). We reveal that spatial variation in bird occurrence probability was consistently explained by climate across all nine species groups. Conversely, LULC change explained more than twice the temporal variation (i.e., decadal changes) in bird occurrence probability than climate change on average across groups. This pattern was largely driven by habitat-constrained species (e.g., grassland birds, waterbirds), whereas decadal changes in occurrence probabilities of habitat-unconstrained species (e.g., forest passerines, mixed habitat birds) were equally explained by both climate and LULC changes over the last century. We conclude that climate has generally governed the winter occurrence of avifauna in space and time, while LULC change has played a pivotal role in driving distributional dynamics of species with limited and declining habitat availability. Effective land management will be critical for improving species’ resilience to climate change, especially during a season of relative resource scarcity and critical energetic trade-offs.

Carolina Wren + Climate Change vs the Polar Vortex

Like so many species, the Carolina Wren is expanding northward. And, like many of those species, this expansion started decades ago, before any measurable climate change, but has exploded in the past decades with climate change.

This phenomenon is most obvious – and even dramatic – among non-migratory species and short-distance migrants. The same thing is happening in the West (e.g. Anna’s Hummingbird, Turkey Vulture, Red-shouldered Hawk, Great Egret, California Scrub-Jay, Black Phoebe, Townsend’s Warbler, and others).

The Carolina Wren has been expanding north since the 1800s due to habitat recovery after deforestation (Haggerty and Morton, 2020 – the Birds of North America (BNA) species account). What makes the recent Carolina Wren data so interesting is that we can clearly see, in its expansion into Canada, its battle with winter weather conditions.

The raw number of Carolina Wrens reported on Christmas Bird Counts in Canada. Over 95% of these come from southern Ontario. The cold waves marked on the graph were particularly record-breaking and long-lasting.

The species is known for “decimation… by severe winter conditions” (BNA) at the northern limits of its range. The same account notes that “severe winters have apparently been infrequent enough during the 20th century to allow populations to expand and move northward.” Indeed, one of the key conclusions of an analysis of climate change in southern Ontario was that there has been “a decrease in the frequency of cold temperature extremes”.  While the wren is aided against cold snaps by bird feeders, the climate trend, at least in Canada, is in its favor. The report noted an overall average increase of 1.5C.

eBird abundance map. The Carolina Wren has primarily been a species of edge habitat associated with moist southern forests.

As the wren expanded, certain record-breaking and persistent cold waves knocked the population back, where it restarted. It’s also clear that it is restarting from a higher position each time, thus building its numbers and continuing its expansion.

The cold snaps denoted on the graph were particularly severe in southern Ontario. A more detailed look at weather data may reveal a more complicated pattern and even greater correlation to warmer winters.

Predicted range changes for Carolina Wren by National Audubon under 1.5C scenario. This map is fairly accurate as the bird continues to colonize the St. Lawrence River corridor.
eBird map for December 2021 showing colonization from Toronto to Ottawa and Montreal and nearly to Quebec City.
A Carolina Wren fluffed up against the cold. Pic from National Audubon website.

Mapping the expansion of the California Scrub-Jay into the Pacific Northwest

This blog post is merely to provide a visual illustration, by way of a map, of the expansion of the California Scrub-Jay across Washington, British Columbia, eastern Oregon, Idaho, and even Montana (one record so far). It is intended to complement my more detailed article, “Tracking Expansion of the California Scrub-Jay Into the Pacific Northwest”, in the Washington Ornithological Society (WOS) News, August-September 2021 edition.

California Scrub-Jays are often first detected at bird feeders in suburban areas. As aggressive nest predators, jays should not be subsidized by anthropogenic food sources. In short, please don’t feed the corvids. Port Townsend, WA. April 2021.

As becomes clear in the article, these are not hard lines. The jays are advancing gradually, not in a solid wave. Typically, a single jay will appear well outside the known range (e.g. Spokane). Within a year or two, there will be several. Then they’ll be breeding. Then they will begin expanding further. Meanwhile, a wave of jays will be backfilling the new territory, with densities increasing annually. The lines in this map are as much art as science, but are intended to show the primary region were jays were “regular and expected”. There were always outliers, pioneer dispersers expanding the range. Records beyond the 2020 line are shown as pale blue dots.

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The expansion of the California Scrub-Jay mimics that of several other species, mostly non-migratory or short-distance migrants, rapidly expanding from California and Oregon into the Pacific Northwest.

The jay’s expansion has already surpassed that predicted by the Audubon Society’s climate model under a 3.0 degree Celsius scenario, shown here.

The jay’s expansion, when considered in the context of timing and trends in other species, is likely a function of a warming climate combined with suitable food sources. For more discussion of this, see the WOS article linked above.

They seem to be particularly taking advantage of warmer winters in the lower Columbia River Basin.

It will be interesting to see where the 2030 scrub-jay “contour line” will be. I predict they’ll be on Vancouver Island from Victoria to Campbell River, as well as up the Sunshine Coast, up the Okanagan Valley to Kelowna and possibly Kamloops, and east to Idaho, from Coeur d’Alene in the north throughout the Snake River Valley in the south.

After that, they face some formidable hurdles. The biggest obstacles to their expansion further north and east will be habitat with limited food sources (e.g. high mountains). That said, they’ve already shown some ability to travel up mountain valleys and potentially cross the Cascades north of Mount Rainier.

Like most corvids, California Scrub-Jays are big time cachers, storing extra food for future use. I took this photo in southern California, October 2017, when a family of jays were repeatedly stripping an oak, two acorns at a time, flying over a nearby ridge to cache them, and then returning again and again throughout the morning.

Honorific bird names facts and figures

Here is a closer look at the eponymous (mostly honorific) names for the most familiar species in North America.

At the American Ornithological Society (AOS) Congress on English Bird Names on April 16, 2021, a host of prominent organizations and individuals endorsed “bird names for birds”, a widespread effort to rename eponymous or honorific species names with more descriptive names, focusing on their physical or ecological attributes.

This Analysis: 80 familiar species

Scott’s Oriole was named after two brothers and then, later, the Commanding General of the US Army.

Looking at Version 8.0.8 (March 12, 2021) of the ABA Checklist, 116 of the 1,123 species, or a little over 10%, are named after people. Of the 116 in the ABA area, two (Bishop’s Oo and Bachman’s Warbler) are considered extinct, one is an introduced species in Hawaii (Erckel’s Francolin), and 32 others are Codes 3, 4 or 5, meaning they occur rarely in the ABA area. The remaining 80 are all Code 1 or 2 and can be expected to be seen in the ABA area regularly. The following analyses focuses on these 80 familiar species.

The Birds

The first thing to note is that these 80 species come from a wide array of families and species groupings. As with all birds, Passerines are dominant, making up 49% of the list. Digging deeper, seabirds and Passerines with limited ranges (mostly warblers and sparrows) are over-represented—because they were described relatively late in the European discovery process, when honorific naming became more in vogue.

Naming Patterns

The AOU (American Ornithological Union, the precursor to the AOS) began proposing English names in its first checklist in 1886, but didn’t complete the effort – and the names were not universally accepted – until the 5th edition in 1957. Meanwhile, the Latin scientific names have always followed a clear rule: the Latin name is set by the first published description of a species. The “bird names for birds” movement is focused on English names only.

Eponymous naming was rare in the 18th century, limited to just four of the 80 species, all emanating from Russian/German and British field work, primarily focused on the far north. The four early birds are Steller’s Eider (1769), Blackburnian Warbler (1776), Steller’s Jay (1788), and Barrow’s Goldeneye (1789).

Then, in 1811, Alexander Wilson named a woodpecker and a nutcracker after Lewis and Clark, and honorific naming was off and running, peaking in the mid-1800s.

Eponyms for the 80 Code 1 and Code 2 species are overwhelmingly honorific. Only six are named after the describer himself (Wilson’s Warbler, Sabine’s Gull, Brandt’s Cormorant, Townsend’s Warbler, Gambel’s Quail, and Cory’s Shearwater), and it’s not clear that even all of them intended for the species to have an eponym; the Latin names for the warbler, cormorant, and shearwater suggest otherwise. Wilson himself called his warbler the Green Black-capped Flycatcher and the western subspecies went by Pileolated Warbler (coined by Pallas) as late as the 1950s.

The namers were widespread – 36 different people provided the 80 names, though four stand out. John James Audubon provided fifteen of the eponymous names, Spencer Baird and John Cassin each provided seven, and Rene Lesson four. Together, these four ornithologists were responsible for 41% (33/80) of the honorific names in this analysis. In addition, many eponymous subspecies were coined by Baird.

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Locations on the diagram only loosely correspond to the time axis due to space constraints.

The majority of the namers were connected to each other, with many naming birds after colleagues, who in turn named species after other colleagues. Lesson described Audubon’s Shearwater and Oriole; Audubon described Baird’s Sparrow; Baird described Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jay; Woodhouse described Cassin’s Sparrow; Cassin described Lawrence’s Goldfinch; Lawrence described LeConte’s Thrasher.

There are no examples of a quid pro quo, where two people named birds after each other, unless you count Audubon’s Warbler, described by Townsend in 1837; Audubon returned the favor with Townsend’s Solitaire the following year. Or Coues, who christened a sandpiper after Baird in 1861; four years later, Baird named a warbler after Coues’ sister, Grace.

Despite Audubon’s dominant role in honorific naming, no Americans honored him (excepting Townsend with Audubon’s Warbler); only Lesson, a Frenchman, did.

A third of the species (27 of 80) have Latin names that do not match the honorific English name. In most instances this is because the bird was accidentally described twice. Most often, they were not originally intended to have an honorific name. A person described the species and gave a descriptive Latin name, then later another person described the same species and gave an honorific name. For example, Lichtenstein described A. aestivalis in 1823, then Audubon described it again in 1839, naming it Bachman’s Sparrow. When it was realized the two were the same species, the Latin name provided by the first publication held, but, at least in these instances, the honorific English name was also given—a kind of consolation prize to the second describer. Thus, what was called Pinewoods or Oakwoods Sparrow became Bachman’s Sparrow. It’s apparent that oversight and review of “naming and claiming” was limited.

Among the 80 species in this analysis, this double-describing happened at least 18 times. Curiously, six of these were by Audubon and account for 40% of his honorific bestowments. These are Harris’s Hawk, Bachman’s Sparrow, MacGillivray’s Warbler, Harris’s Sparrow, Brewer’s Blackbird, and Smith’s Longspur. MacGillivray’s Warbler was intended to be Tolmie’s Warbler as described by Townsend; the other five have descriptive Latin names. There is one other double-described species that has a Latin honorific—Scott’s Oriole, Icterus parisorum, originally named after the Paris brothers. Most of the others have descriptive Latin names.

Cassin’s Auklet (P. aleutica) and Cassin’s Kingbird (T. vociferans) were first described, respectively, before Cassin was born and when Cassin was just thirteen. Clearly the original describers did not intend to honor Cassin. However, by the 1886 AOU checklist both carried the Cassin moniker, though there is no record that I could find how or why that came to be (and even a co-author of the auklet’s Birds of North American species account didn’t know the answer).

Interestingly, two species have Latin names derived from indigenous words: pipixcan of Franklin’s Gull is Nahuatl for the gull or possibly the Aztec region in Mexico; sasin of Allen’s Hummingbird is Noo-chah-nulth (Nootka) for hummingbird, a reference to when the species was lumped with Rufous Hummingbird. The gull was described twice, which is how it ended up honoring Franklin. The hummingbird was split, providing an opportunity for another name. Ironically, Allen’s, not Rufous, Hummingbird always bore the Noo-chah-nulth name which emanates from Vancouver Island.

Correlated with the timing, a clear regional pattern emerges. Because the common eastern species had already been described a century earlier, western species with honorific names outnumber eastern ones nearly ten to one. A map plotting the year of description with the core of the species’ range mimics European expansion – and ethnic cleansing of Native Americans – across the continent in the nineteenth century.

The Honorees

As for the honorees, most were naturalists, either doing field work or promoting it (70 of 80), most were Americans (55 of 80) or at least had spent some time in North America (add ten more). French collectors dominated the hummingbirds.

Only six species honor women—or girls. Blackburne is the early outlier, a British naturalist honored by one of the German ornithologists in the late 1700s. Neither spent time in North America; the type specimen comes from South America. Curiously, the eponymic title is not in the possessive form (e.g. Blackburne’s Warbler). For reasons unknown to me, the Latin name was changed from blackburniae to fusca before 1910.

During the surge of honorifics in the mid-1800s, the only females honored were friends or family, and they only got first names. Anna, age 27 when the hummingbird was named in her honor, was the wife of an ornithologist and a lady-in-waiting in the court of Emperor Napoleon III’s wife. She was described by Audubon as a “beautiful young woman, not more than twenty, extremely graceful and polite.” Virginia was the wife of William Anderson, the original collector; she was honored by Baird at Anderson’s request. Grace, also honored by Baird, was Elliot Coues’s sister. Lucy, age 13, honored by James G. Cooper, was Baird’s daughter.

We don’t return to female scientists – and last names – until the 1900s, with Scripps, who was honored in 1939, and her bird didn’t reach species status until 2012.

Most of the honorees have no obvious indications of a checkered past (66 of 80), though most of these were quite comfortable associating with, or honoring with bird names, those who were slaveholders, white supremacists, or actively involved in killing or removing Native Americans, even while these actions were hotly debated and contested at the time among whites—and universally opposed by Blacks and Native Americans. As early as 1920, the entire concept of eponymous bird names was challenged.

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Locations are intended to approximate the location of the species’ range or location of type specimen.

The dominance of western species among honorific names with morally objectionable pasts is no accident. In wars of conquest against Mexico and Indigenous peoples, the US army sought solider-scientists who could help map new lands. In the process, they renamed land and wildlife as if it was discovered for the first time. Many of the ornithologists working in the West were attached to US military expeditions or other surveys of colonization, such as railroad surveys or the border survey after the Mexican-American War. They often served as doctors while doing naturalist work on the side. Many were likely looking for a vehicle to get into the field.

Others were active combatants, with the naturalist work coming on the side. William Clark, after the famous 1803 expedition, played a leadership role in the ethnic cleansing of Native Americans for three decades. Abert served as a soldier under John Fremont’s Third Expedition and likely participated in the Sacramento River massacre of Wintu families, deemed horrific by their contemporaries. General Winfield Scott, not a naturalist in any way, was honored by Couch with an oriole precisely for his role as the Commanding General of the US Army, which included overseeing the arrest, detainment, and expulsion of the Cherokee during the Trail of Tears. Scott had been a major party candidate for president of the United States just two years before Couch honored him with the oriole. Imagine McCain’s Oriole or Romney’s Finch.

This passage, from a 1960 article about soldier-scientists Richard and Edward Kern (who collected birds but only got a river, a beetle, and a county named after them), exemplifies the era. “Their first task… was to map uncharted Navajo country on a punitive march with the army.* It was a rich opportunity to observe Indians in their native haunts. How many men did they know at the academy in Philadelphia who would give an arm to be thus contacting Pueblos and Navajos! Moreover, the Kerns would measure a few more skulls for Morton; snare some strange lizards for Leidy; and capture for their own delight any number of bright birds from a terra incognita.”

[* This was Col. John M. Washington’s 1849 incursion in which elderly Navajo Chief Narbona was killed minutes after a peace agreement, leading to war between the Navajo and US, who had just annexed much of the Southwest from Mexico]

But why did they turn to honorific naming when their predecessors did not? Was it the spirit of conquest, of erasing the former occupants of the land, that gave them the presumption and bravado to name even the birds after each other? After all, mountains, rivers, valleys, and large regions of land were all being re-named and claimed as European. In the Southwest, many places that already had Spanish names were given English names.

White supremacy permeated the sciences. Crania Americana was published between 1839 and 1849 by Samuel Morton, a colleague of several of the naturalists. In addition to the Kern brothers mentioned above, Townsend collected skulls for him. During the same era, to support the Indian Removal Act and other similar policies, the Mound Builder Myth, asserting that Native Americans were not actually native, but that North America was originally populated by Europeans, was widely taught in grade schools across the land. The land was originally European, so the story went. This theory was eventually laid to rest thanks to the efforts of John Wesley Powell, but only after most Natives were detained in concentration camps.

In short, the scientific fields were permeated with white supremacy and a sense of white ownership. Ornithological research found itself interlocked with US military endeavors and, on the Western frontier, far from Eastern progressive voices advocating abolition and respect for slaves and Natives. In this climate, honorific naming eventually ran amok, often foundering on the rocky shores of slavery and ethnic cleansing, aka manifest destiny.

It would be wrong to assume that “everyone was doing it.” In 1822, Thomas Say, honored by Charles Bonaparte with the phoebe, described Long-billed Dowitcher, Band-tailed Pigeon, Dusky Grouse, Western Kingbird, Rock Wren, Lark Sparrow, Lesser Goldfinch, Lazuli Bunting, and Orange-crowned Warbler, giving all of them descriptive names.

Caveat: Researching the origins of species’ names is challenging, especially for those described more than once or subject to taxonomic revisions. Corrections from knowledgeable readers are much appreciated. Regardless of errors, the larger picture, the trends regarding time and place, still hold.

Note: Updated June 2, 2021 to include Blackburnian Warbler.

I recently dug deeper and looked at what these species are called in other languages. It turns out that all of these species have alternative “bird names” in other languages.

I’ve added some thoughts addressing the question: Should we hold people in the past accountable to present-day mores?

As a citizen of Cherokee Nation, here is my personal connection to Scott’s Oriole.

Goodbye California: Reminiscences of a climate refugee

There are a lot of reasons why I’m moving from California to Washington, including family and other personal considerations. But one reason, one big reason, is California’s rapidly changing climate.

It was late February in the Coast Range of northern California when I was wearing shorts and a t-shirt. Dust swirled around my car in the dirt parking lot at Cold Canyon. The car thermometer, warmed by a sun that felt imported from Palm Springs, said 87 degrees; it was actually only 77. A hint of ash, omnipresent since The Fire last summer, remained in the air.

Its oaks torched with little hope of return, Putah Creek Canyon is quickly resembling a sun-scorched canyon in Arizona. Until 2018, only one fire in the area had burned more than 15 square miles. Then the County Fire burned 140 square miles. In 2020, the LNU Complex Fire burned 570 square miles.

The hillsides were green with the new growth of non-native grass, which was responding to a recent heavy rain. That was deceptive. More than half the rain we’d had in the previous eight months came in that single event. We had six inches of rain in all of 2020. Looking beyond the grass, nearly every tree – blue oaks and gray pines – on the hillsides was dead, burnt black and orange monuments to a previous era. For our local blue oak woodland, that era ended last year and, given that recruitment of saplings is unlikely due to heat, fire, and cattle, it was an era that will never return.

Massive die-offs are eliminating blue oaks from the southern third of their range. Black oaks are marching up the Sierra, displacing Ponderosa pine, which are marching up, displacing firs. Everyone is on the move. Oak woodlands are becoming oak savannahs, oak savannahs are becoming grasslands, grasslands are becoming rocky high deserts. Arizonification is happening quickly, thru heat, drought, and ultimately, thru fire.

Virtually all of the east slopes of the Coast Range between San Francisco Bay and the Trinity Alps has burned in the past ten years. In the Sierra, one can practically predict where the next fire catastrophe will happen, because it hasn’t burned yet (hint: Lake Almanor, Placerville, Arnold).

The Fire, the LNU Complex Fire, was part of 2020’s 4.3 million acres of scorched earth. The LNU Fire exceeded the total acreage of all previous fires that impacted my county over the last 50 years combined.

It was a beautiful day—for April. But February has become April, April has become May, and June, July, August, September, and even October and November have become unrecognizable. Every year more heat records are broken. Hottest summer, hottest month, most days over 100, most days over 90. The list goes on, each year breaking the records set the previous year. Weather data is normally highly variable; now it is a straight line—warmer and warmer. And smokier.

My cape honeysuckle and bougainvillea, both planted with a degree of optimism outside their recommended zone, used to die back so badly in the winter that each spring I was tempted to declare them dead and pull them out. Now they bloom year-round, looking like they’re in a courtyard at a hotel in the tropics. We haven’t had a real freeze in seven winters.

The songs of lesser goldfinches on my street are a depressing warning. I can’t take two steps outside without seeing or hearing a bird that reminds me that our climate has seriously changed. Western tanagers, house wrens, and turkey vultures are regular in winter now. The lesser goldfinches have come out of the arid hills and are quickly becoming one of the most ubiquitous nesting birds in Davis. (I know this definitively because one included an imitation of a canyon wren in its song.) What’s more, at least four Say’s phoebes, essentially a high desert species, are scouting for nests in town now. A fifth arrived on my block last week, singing as if on territory. They’ve been doing this for a few years and their numbers are growing.

The graphs of acres burned in California (and in other western states) and the expansion of some bird species into the Pacific Northwest (in this case, Anna’s hummingbirds in winter), are strikingly similar.

I’m leaving. I’ve lived in California fifty-five years but it’s no longer the state I grew up in.

We’re headed to the Olympic Peninsula in Washington. We are fortunate to be able to do so.

Besides the cooler summers, one of the best things about moving to a new place is that I won’t be reminded of climate change on a daily experiential basis. Because the ecosystem will be new to me, I won’t know what’s different, what is changing, except maybe for the brown boobies, a tropical seabird, that are now showing up in Puget Sound each year. Or the family of California scrub-jays that have just established residence on my new street. Like Anna’s hummingbirds, black phoebes, great egrets, red-shouldered hawks, and people like me, scrub-jays are moving north. I expect more of California’s birds to follow me, just as I follow some of them. Yes, lesser goldfinches are coming north too; they’re already established southeast of Tacoma.

I feel like a frog in a boiling pot. I’m getting out. I’m saying goodbye to California, but I feel it has left all of us without saying goodbye to anyone.

The view from Point Wilson, a mile from my new home in Port Townsend, which has had only a few nights below freezing all winter. Climate change is occurring there too, but remains well within temperate ranges.

I do believe that Homo sapiens may ultimately win the climate battle and bring atmospheric CO2 back down to 300 ppm or something. But that’s a hundred years off. And there’s no guarantee we can stop the tide of Greenland and Antarctic ice melt to prevent sea level rise. In the meantime, in the next 50 to 100 years, it’s going to get a lot warmer. And we may ultimately lose New York City, Singapore, Mumbai, and every other low-lying coastal city. My new home is fifty feet above sea level. Well, probably forty-nine and a half now.

Mojave Desert bird populations plummet due to climate change

Two recent papers concluded that many breeding bird species in southern California and Nevada deserts have declined dramatically due to climate change.

In their abstract, Iknayan and Beissinger (2018) summarized, “We evaluated how desert birds have responded to climate and habitat change by resurveying historic sites throughout the Mojave Desert that were originally surveyed for avian diversity during the early 20th century by Joseph Grinnell and colleagues. We found strong evidence of an avian community in collapse.”

They re-surveyed 61 sites originally surveyed by Grinnell teams in the early 20th century (primarily between 1917 and 1947).

Of 135 species assessed (which included some wintering and migrating species, as well as breeding species), 39 had significantly declined; only one (Common Raven) had increased. This was in stark contrast to similar assessments they conducted of Sierra and Central Valley sites, where more species had increased than decreased and there were no overall declines (not to say there weren’t winners, losers, and range shifts within those regions).

Figure 1B from Iknayan and Beissinger (2018). Every study site had fewer species than previously– on average each site had lost 43% of their species.

Detailed analyses suggested less rainfall and less access to water was the primary driver. Habitat change only affected 15% of the study sites and was of secondary importance. They found no evidence of expansion of species from the hotter, drier Sonoran Desert (e.g. Phainopepla, Verdin, Black-throated Sparrow) into the Mojave Desert.

Consistent with a community collapse, declines were greatest among species at the top of food chain — carnivores such as Prairie Falcon, American Kestrel, and Turkey Vulture. Insectivores were the next most impacted, and herbivores the least. But the declines affected both common and rare species, both generalists and specialists.

Figure 1B from Iknayan and Beissinger (2018), which I’ve augmented with species labels from the database available in the supplementary materials. Other significant losers (red dots), in order of degree of decline, included Western Kingbird, Western Meadowlark, Black-chinned Sparrow, Lawrence’s Goldfinch, Bushtit, Ladder-backed Woodpecker, and Canyon Wren. The yellow dots are newly invasive species: Chukar, Eurasian Collared-Dove, Eurasian Starling, and Great-tailed Grackle.

A follow-up study by Riddell et al (2020), also involving Iknayan and Beissinger, focused on the thermoregulatory costs — the water requirements to keep cool — for the declining species. They found that “species’ declines were positively associated with climate-driven increases in water requirements for evaporative cooling and exacerbated by large body size, especially for species with animal-based diets.” Larger species get much of their water from the insects they eat. They estimated larger species would have to double or triple their insect intake to meet their water needs, though insect abundance is lowest July thru September.

American Kestrels were among the biggest losers in the study, struggling to meet their cooling needs.

Intriguingly, they found that 22 species had actually declined in body size over the last century, consistent with Bergmann’s Rule, and had reduced their cooling costs up to 14%. These species fared better. Current climate change, however, is at least ten times more rapid than any previous warming event, during which many species evolved. They estimated cooling costs have already increased 19% and will reach 50% to 78% under most scenarios, far outstripping any species’ ability to evolve through the current rapid warming.

These results stand in stark contrast to the Pacific Northwest, where many of the same bird species (e.g. Anna’s Hummingbird, Turkey Vulture, Northern Mockingbird) are increasing. This is consistent with projections which generally show individual declines along species’ southern edge and expansions at the north edge of their range (see Audubon climate projection maps for individual species).

Iknayan and Beissinger conclude, “Our results provide evidence that bird communities in the Mojave Desert have collapsed to a new, lower baseline. Declines could accelerate with future climate change, as this region is predicted to become drier and hotter by the end of the century.”

Keep Davis Water Treatment Ponds wild

The ponds at the Davis Wastewater Treatment Plant have been one of the top birding spots in Yolo County for over 50 years. With 212 species reported via eBird, only two other sites in the county have recorded more (Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area and Davis Wetlands).

Here’s a short video clip from October 2020 illustrating the amazing bird life. A family of Sandhill Cranes walks among thousands of geese, ducks, and shorebirds while the calls of curlews filled the air. A Peregrine Falcon and a Northern Harrier buzzed past. Though the ponds are no longer part of the water treatment plant operations, they still collect rain water and provide habitat. Over 14,000 ducks have been counted on them during the annual Christmas Bird Count. The list of rarities includes everything from Slaty-backed Gull and Arctic Tern to Vermillion Flycatcher.

Earlier this year, the Davis City Council voted 4-1 to lease these ponds to BrightNight solar to convert these ponds into a solar array. Aside from the obvious risk of bird mortality from panel strikes, the project would eliminate one of the best bird habitats in the county. The City Council’s decision has been criticized for its impact on wildlife, for the improper process bypassing the Natural Resources Commission, and for its poor financial terms (the city got ripped off). Gloria Partida, Dan Carson, Will Arnold, and Brett Lee approved it. Only Lucas Frerichs voted against the deal.

But it’s not too late to try to stop it. Here’s what you can do:

1. Call or email each City Council member and ask them to rescind their original vote. Their phone numbers are available here. We need three of them to overturn the original decision. Will Arnold has expressed regret for his vote and Gloria Partida was skeptical at the outset. We also may have an opportunity after the election with new Council member to overturn this decision.

  • Gloria Partida — gpartida@cityofdavis.org
  • Will Arnold — warnold@cityofdavis.org
  • Dan Carson — dcarson@cityofdavis.org
  • Brett Lee — blee@cityofdavis.org
  • Lucas Frerichs — lucasf@cityofdavis.org

2. Call or email Valley Clean Energy Alliance board members and ask them to reject the bid from BrightNight for a new power contract. Their emails are here:

  • Angel Barajas — angel.barajas@cityofwoodland.org
  • Dan Carson — dcarson@cityofdavis.org
  • Lucas Frerichs — lucasf@cityofdavis.org
  • Gary Sandy, Vice Chair — gary.sandy@yolocounty.org
  • Don Saylor — don.saylor@yolocounty.org
  • Tom Stallard, Chair — tom.stallard@cityofwoodland.org
  • Duane Chamberlain, alternate — duane.chamberlain@yolocounty.org
  • Xochitl Rodriguez, alternate — xochitl.rodriguez@cityofwoodland.org

3. Join the effort to increase transparency in City government that would have prevented this travesty. You can see more on that here.