Academic Minute
5:00 am
Tue May 1, 2012

Dr. Allen Hurlbert, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill – Bird Migration

In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. Allen Hurlbert of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill reveals how different species of migratory birds are responding to global climate change.

Allen Hurlbert is an assistant professor of biology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His research lab investigates the structure of ecological communities, and the processes responsible for determining their patterns of diversity and changing composition. He holds a Ph.D. From the University of New Mexico.

About Dr. Hurlbert

Dr. Allen Hurlbert – Bird Migration and Climate Change

Imagine you’re a barn swallow spending your winter in southern Brazil. Life is good. The weather is warm, insects are plentiful, and you pass the time with your friends stringing together one amazing aerial maneuver after another. But one day, you feel a stirring inside, and a call from places farther north. Next thing you know, the Brazilian savannas are far behind and you’ve embarked on a 6,000 mile journey to the U.S., maybe to upstate New York. You’ve made the journey before, only this time things are….different. Warmer. The trees and flowers are much further along than you’re used to for this point in the year. And, hey, wait! That peak emergence of flying insects—you know, the insects that you count on for successfully raising your young—it looks like you missed it.

That’s the picture emerging from a recent study I conducted with former UNC undergraduate Lily Liang. While some migrants like the red-eyed vireo and scarlet tanager are able to track changes in spring temperature and adjust their arrival on breeding grounds accordingly, other species like the barn swallow are having trouble adjusting. This inability to adjust to changing climates may be one reason why they, along with other species, are declining.

And how did we find out about this problem? Possibly thanks to someone you know. We used data from a website called eBird in which birdwatchers from around North America—your grandmother or uncle, perhaps—enter their observations to a centralized database. These millions of observations allow scientists like myself to explore patterns in the migratory timing and geographic distribution of birds at an unprecedented level of detail.

So the next time you spot a barn swallow doing its aerial dance, hope that it starts to catch on that the times they are a changin’. And report your observation to eBird.

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