Timing of autumn bird migration under climate change: advances in long–distance migrants, delays in short–distance migrants

Lukas Jenni, Marc Kéry


As a response to increasing spring temperature in temperate regions in recent years, populations of many plant and animal species, including migratory birds, have advanced the seasonal start of their reproduction or growth. However, the effects of climate changes on subsequent events of the annual cycle remain poorly understood. We investigated long–term changes in the timing of autumn migration in birds, a key event in the annual cycle limiting the reproductive period. Using data spanning a 42–year period, we analysed long–term changes in the passage of 65 species of migratory birds through Western Europe. The autumn passage of migrants wintering south of the Sahara has advanced in recent years, presumably as a result of selection pressure to cross the Sahel before its seasonal dry period. In contrast, migrants wintering north of the Sahara have delayed autumn passage. In addition, species with a variable rather than a fixed number of broods per year have delayed passage, possibly because they are free to attempt more broods. Recent climate changes seem to have a simple unidirectional effect on the seasonal onset of reproduction, but complex and opposing effects on the timing of subsequent events in the annual cycle, depending on the ecology and life history of a species. This complicates predictions of overall effects of global warming on avian communities.

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