Article image

European breeding birds adapt to climate change at a slower pace

A recent study led by Durham University has revealed an intriguing yet concerning phenomenon regarding how European breeding birds have adapted to climate change over the past three decades. 

Contrary to initial expectations, these avian species have exhibited a slower response to climate shifts, offering a potential insight into the challenges and intricacies of species migration and survival in a rapidly changing environment.

Focus of the study

The researchers discovered that the geographical range of European breeding birds has shifted at an average rate of 2.4km per year over the last 30 years. 

This finding is particularly significant when considering that the predicted shift based on climate changes alone should have been approximately 50 percent faster. These results, therefore, underscore the extent to which the migration of these species has deviated from the theoretical predictions.

The methodology of the study involved analyzing data from two Europe-wide bird distribution atlases published 30 years apart. 

An intriguing finding from the study was that local colonization and extinction events among species were not strongly impacted by the climatic changes between the two survey periods. Instead, they were predominantly influenced by the climatic conditions at the time of the first surveys.

Fascinating responses 

Professor Stephen Willis from Durham University’s Department of Biosciences, one of the study leaders, provided a comprehensive interpretation of these findings. 

“Our results possibly indicate two fascinating responses to recent climate change,” Willis explained. “On one hand, we see ‘colonization lags’ where species fail to follow improving climates, potentially due to the unavailability of suitable habitats or prey in new locations. On the other hand, we witness fewer extinctions in areas where we anticipated them, potentially indicating ‘extinction debts.’”

Willis further elaborated on the concept of “extinction debts,” referring to situations where species persist in areas with unfavorable climatic conditions, due to time lag effects in their preferred habitats changing.

Implications of the study

A significant revelation from the study was the importance of maintaining networks of local populations, both to minimize extinctions and to make populations more resilient to the impacts of climate change. 

“The significant role of non-climatic factors in altering range changes illustrates that climate is just one factor impacting populations of European breeding birds,” said study first author Dr.  Christine Howard. She also warned against factors like persecution, which are still causing major issues for many species.

Dr. Sergi Herrando, who spearheaded the collation of data for the most recent distribution atlas, remarked on the invaluable contribution of coordinated survey data across many countries. “The work presented here underscores the ways in which such data, collected from a staggering number of 120,000 field workers, can be utilized to better comprehend the causes of species losses and gains,” Dr. Herrando said.

The findings from this research, published in the journal Nature Communications, are not only enlightening for the scientific community but also carry far-reaching implications for conservation efforts. Funded in part by the National Environment Research Council, the study forms a vital part of UK Research and Innovation, contributing to our understanding of how climate change is influencing biodiversity.

European breeding birds

There are numerous species of breeding birds in Europe, from the common to the rare and endangered. They encompass a wide variety of habitats including forests, wetlands, grasslands, mountains, and even urban areas. 

Well-known examples 

European Robin

This is one of the most famous European birds. They are small, often found in gardens, and are identifiable by their distinctive red breast.

Barn Swallow

Known for their long migrations, Barn Swallows breed across Europe and fly south to Africa for the winter. They have a beautiful blue-black back and a reddish-brown throat.

Common Chaffinch 

These are common garden birds throughout Europe. The males are brightly colored, with a blue-grey cap, pink cheeks and breast, and a greenish rump.

European Goldfinch 

These are small birds with a distinctive red face, black and white head, warm brown upperparts and white underparts with buff flanks and breast patches.

Blue Tit 

Known for their blue and yellow plumage, these are popular garden birds that are often seen at bird feeders.

Common Blackbird  

These birds are entirely black in males with a yellow eye-ring and bill, while females are brown. They are common in gardens and woodland areas.

Eurasian Sparrowhawk

A small bird of prey, it’s found in woodland and sometimes in gardens. Males have bluish-grey back and wings and orangey-brown bars on their chest and belly, while females are larger with brown back and wings.

White Stork 

Famous for their nesting habits, they build large stick nests in trees or on buildings and other structures. They are white with black flight feathers and a red bill and legs.

European Bee-eater 

A brightly colored bird found in southern Europe, they nest in sandy banks, usually near river shores, where they dig a tunnel and lay their eggs.

Atlantic Puffin 

This seabird breeds in large colonies on coastal cliffs or offshore islands, laying its eggs in burrows or crevices.


Check us out on EarthSnap, a free app brought to you by Eric Ralls and

News coming your way
The biggest news about our planet delivered to you each day