Is this the end of migration?

Climate change is affecting bird behaviour at a staggering rate. Some 20 billion have already changed their flight plans

A A A

It's rained three times as much as usual this winter in Andalusia, and almost every day unemployed amateur ornithologist Javier Caracuel has walked past a disused mining tower in the decaying industrial town of Linares and looked up, expecting the pair of white storks that nest there to have migrated south.

Yet despite the surrounding high noise levels – the tower, some 10 metres high, is jammed between a school and a street clogged with traffic – and Andalusia's wettest winter in decades, the storks have stayed put. And they're not alone. "There have always been a couple of storks at the top of the church spire down by the railway station, but I've never seen so many across town," Mr Caracuel explains, "and there are dozens more in the villages."

The changes in storks' behaviour that Mr Caracuel has observed in one near-forgotten mining town in north-eastern Andalusia are far from uncommon. At a recent high-level congress attended by 200 migration experts, leading Spanish ornithologist Miguel Ferrer estimated that 20 billion birds have changed their migrating habits in the last few decades. The biggest single identifiable reason behind such a massive behavioural shift, involving 70 per cent of the world's migrating birds is – surprise, surprise – climate change.

"Long-distance migrators are travelling shorter distances, shorter-distance migrators are becoming sedentary," says Mr Ferrer, who works for Spain's Higher Council for Scientific Research (CSIC) in the Doñana National Park, one of the key European "stopovers" in bird migration routes. "That has a knock-on effect on almost everything they do, from breeding habits to feeding habits to their genetic diversity, which in turn affects other organisms in their food chain. It's a huge behavioural change, forced on them by rising temperatures."

"Climate change and environmental change are simultaneously forcing migratory birds to adapt extremely quickly," says Ian Newton, a Royal Society member and lifelong researcher into the subject. But if the adaption process is necessarily far faster than the last comparable geophysical phenomenon, the Ice Age, this time round it may not be anywhere near as successful.

"Fossil evidence suggests that in the Ice Age migration patterns changed, but now it's not such an easy option. The worldwide landscape is much more fragmented because of human activity. Put simply, it's not the same for a bird to try to adapt to the environment in Manhattan as it is in the Maldives."

Apart from migration changes, the birds' other option in the face of a fast-heating environment is fast-track evolution. This time there is evidence they are doing both. Reduction of wingspan sizes and changes in beak shapes have already been recorded. In another recent discovery, Francisco Pulido of the Complutense University in Madrid has ascertained that the recent shifts in migratory patterns are not necessarily temporary: rather for some birds, they're genetic.

"Pulido looked at migratory restlessness in blackcaps and warblers over a 13 year period," Professor Newton explains. "Studying a separate sample of birds each year, he found that their restlessness became progressively earlier each season. The only explanation for such a change is genetics."

Such changes are likely to become ever more common, as temperatures rise across the planet. "Average annual temperatures are moving northward at a rate of four kilometres a year," Mr Ferrer estimates, "so the normal summer temperature in your city 12 months ago is now normal four kilometres further north. It doesn't sound like a lot, but that's 20 times quicker than temperatures changed in the last Ice Age. At the same time, because birds are migrating less, one traditional path for genetic development – when they strayed from their migration paths by accident and had to adapt – is being closed off."

Scientists insist the consequences of rising temperatures have barely begun to scratch the surface of birds' behavioural patterns. But changes are becoming increasingly dramatic, with radical population shifts just one known effect. To use the example of white storks again, as long as six years ago recorded numbers in Spain had almost doubled to 32,000. Even in far-flung Tykocin, north-east Poland, they have risen by 20 per cent.

At the same time, wild geese in Doñana, once numbered in the hundreds of thousands, have plunged by 40 per cent. However, in Lake Gallocanta in Zaragoza, Spain, amateur ornithologist Javier Mañas reports that numbers of wintering cranes have increased six-fold in the past five years, from 3,000 to more than 18,000.

On the other side of the planet, there have been similar changes in migration patterns, according to a British specialist in Japanese wildlife and author, Mark Brazil. "We see considerable annual variation now in the presence and absence of wintering birds arriving into Japan." he says.

"Some people might say to heck with biodiversity," comments Peter Marra, a research scientist at the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Centre in the USA, "but they'd be wrong. Birds are the most sensitive thermometer of environmental change we have, and if up to 20 per cent are going to become extinct, it doesn't say to me we're living in a sustainable way."

VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
Ricky Gervais at a screening of 'Muppets Most Wanted' in London last month
tvRicky Gervais on the return of 'Derek' – and why he still ignores his critics
Sport
Luis Suarez of Liverpool celebrates his goal
sport
Arts & Entertainment
Homer meets Lego Marge in the 25th anniversary episode of The Simpsons, set to air on 4 May
tv
Arts & Entertainment
James Franco and Chris O'Dowd in Of Mice and Men on Broadway
theatreReview: Of Mice and Men, Longacre Theatre
Life & Style
Infant child breast-feeding with eyes closed
healthTo stop mummy having any more babies, according to scientists
News
news
Life & Style
Going down: Google's ambition to build an elevator into space isn't likely to be fulfilled any time soon
techTechnology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit
Arts & Entertainment
film
News
David Cameron sings a hymn during the enthronement service of The Most Rev Justin Welby as Archbishop of Canterbury, at Canterbury Cathedral last year
news
Life & Style
From long to Jong: Guy Pewsey gets the North Korean leader's look
fashionThe Independent heads to an Ealing hairdressers to try out the North Korean dictator's trademark do
Extras
indybest10 best smartphones
Arts & Entertainment
tvCreator Vince Gilligan sheds light on alternate endings
Life & Style
Google Doodle celebrates the 63rd anniversary of the Peak District National Park
tech
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Apprentice IT Technician

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is a company that specializ...

1st Line Technical Service Desk Analyst IT Apprentice

£153.75 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is an innovative outsourcin...

1st Line Helpdesk Engineer Apprentice

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company has been providing on site ...

Sales Associate Apprentice

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: We've been supplying best of breed peopl...

Day In a Page

Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

Mad Men returns for a final fling

The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit
Westminster is awash with tales of young men being sexually harassed - but it's far from being just a problem in politics

Is sexual harassment a fact of gay life?

Westminster is awash with tales of young men being sexually harassed - but it's far from being just a problem in politics
Moshi Monster creator Michael Acton Smith: The man behind a British success story

Moshi Monster creator Michael Acton Smith

Acton Smith launched a world of virtual creatures who took the real world by storm
Kim Jong-un's haircut: The Independent heads to Ealing to try out the dictator's do

Our journalist tries out Kim Jong-un's haircut

The North Korean embassy in London complained when M&M Hair Academy used Kim Jong-un's image in the window. Curious, Guy Pewsey heads to the hair salon and surrenders to the clippers
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A forgotten naval victory in which even Nature played a part

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

A forgotten naval victory in which even Nature played a part
Vespa rides on with launch of Primavera: Iconic Italian scooter still revving up millions of sales

Vespa rides on with launch of the Primavera

The Vespa has been a style icon since the 1950s and the release this month of its latest model confirms it has lost little of its lustre
Record Store Day: Independent music shops can offer a tempting alternative to downloads

Record Store Day celebrates independent music shops

This Saturday sees a host of events around the country to champion the sellers of well-grooved wax
Taunton's policy of putting philosophy at heart of its curriculum is one of secrets of its success

Education: Secret of Taunton's success

Taunton School, in Somerset, is one of the country's leading independent schools, says Richard Garner
10 best smartphones

10 best smartphones

With a number of new smartphones on the market, we round up the best around, including some more established models
Mickey Arthur: Aussie tells ECB to stick with Ashley Giles

Mickey Arthur: Aussie tells ECB to stick with Ashley Giles

The former Australia coach on why England must keep to Plan A, about his shock at their collapse Down Under, why he sent players home from India and the agonies of losing his job
Homelessness: Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

Zubairi Sentongo swapped poverty in Uganda for homelessness in Britain. But a YMCA scheme connected him with a couple offering warmth and shelter
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park
The pain of IVF

The pain of IVF

As an Italian woman vows to keep the babies from someone else’s eggs, Julian Baggini ponders how the reality of childbirth is often messier than the natural ideal