Birding Today: Birds adapting to changes in climate

Genoscapes were created for 10 birds, one of which is the yellow warbler.

Nearly half of all migratory songbird populations are declining in the Western Hemisphere. Scientists have observed in both breeding and wintering regions, songbirds are impacted by warm winters and overheating summers. Birds have been moving earlier in the winter and later in the summers (and into fall). As caretakers, we have been attacking this issue by mapping population specifics for a hundred species’ migratory routes with genomics. This is done through the study of genes and their functions, as well as structures and evolution.

Evolution was once considered to take a full century, but with climate change in the picture, adaptation in biological specificity in birds has moved more rapidly. Biodiversity and variable traits since Darwin’s natural selection show that heritability, physiology, and mutable genetics must move with the times. As living organisms must modify themselves in order to survive with changing and moving food sources, they simply do not have the time and must modify themselves to survive. Prime examples are within the Red Crossbill family and seed sources all over the country. There is a crossbill for every region, since coniferous trees do not produce cones every year. The birds became nomads as a result in their core range and once they moved out of it, developed bills to support the harder and softer cones encountered, as well as seed placement within the cone.

We have now moved into other variable changes in physiology, and the Bird Genoscape Project was created. Molecular tags were created for birds to be tracked and genetic maps or genoscapes were created for 10 original birds. It is hoped to increase this tenfold to address current and future challenges that birds continue to face.

Genoscapes are being created for American Kestrel, Redstart, and Robin, Anna’s Hummingbird, Burrowing Owl, Canada, Kentucky, Wilson’s, and Yellow Warblers, Common Yellowthroat, Common Loon, Hermit Thrush, Painted Bunting, Rosy-Finches, and Willow Flycatcher.

As an example, the Rosy-Finches are short distance altitudinal and latitudinal migrants with strong winter site fidelity. The relationship with breeding grounds is little known. Data collection is taken with feather, blood, and color banding samples so that patterning in movement across populations and seasons may be achieved.

Three separate species, all genetically varied, include Brown-capped Rosy-finch, Gray-crowned Rosy-finch, and Black Rosy-finch. No distinct genetic variations were found for any North American species. Scientific genome sequences are being analyzed for almost all species, as well as an Asian subspecies. This will permit insight into all variations present to understand specific species boundaries to permit both population and evolution connections.

For genoscape and climate change, many species have shifted ranges north to compensate for increased temperature. This helps predict how species will respond in the future through which climatic components are most important for where they can live. Some birds might feel precipitation, temperature, or the combination more. This will predict which regions will be inhabited by the most vulnerable populations in best conservation practices.

As time progresses, patterns will be found as more species are analyzed.

Deb Hirt is a wild bird rehabilitator and professional photographer living in Stillwater.

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