Backyard Birds Spreading as Climate Changes

By Pat Michaels and Chip Knappenberger

In a recent Global Science Report, we posted some good news coming out of California’s Sierra Nevada, where climate change (from whatever cause), has been partially responsible for a greening of the organo state. Technically, the biomass in the montane forests have been on the increase over the past several decades.

Turns out climate change is for the birds, too. Yes, Little Eastern Bluebirds (which almost went extinct because of habitat damage) raising their young in cute houses, awakening us with their melodious songs, providing free cat food, and selectively pooping only on my car. What’s not to like? And who wouldn’t like more birds? Well, if you live in the Northeastern U.S., there is a climate-related increase in cat purring because global (actually, local) warming is increasing the range of songbirds.


The Eastern Bluebird – Image: All about birds

A new study appearing in the journal Global Change Biology, authored by Karine Princé and Benjamin Zuckerberg from the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Department of Forest and Wildlife Ecology, finds that:

[A] shifting winter climate has provided an opportunity for smaller, southerly distributed species to colonize new regions and promote the formation of unique winter bird assemblages throughout eastern North America.

The operative word here is “colonize”. In other words, they are spreading out from their home range, not moving north in lockstep.

Linking observations from the amateur bird surveys with temperature data from nearby locations, the authors tracked how the birds were responding to changing winter conditions. During the period 1990-2011, Princé and Zuckerberg found that the average environmental temperature characteristic of the observed bird assemblages should have produced a “northward shift in the community composition of wintering birds” of about 93 miles during the period 1990-2011. Most of this shift was the result of warm-weather adapted species with short migratory paths, such as the chipping sparrow and the Carolina wren, which are both expanding their ranges northward as well as increasing their populations within already established ranges. The authors tell us:

We found that the stronger positive…trends in southerly latitudes were driven by warm adapted birds increasing in their local abundance and regional occurrence… Despite diminished trends…in the more northerly latitudes, these trends were also driven by southerly species expanding their range (e.g., Carolina Wren and Eastern Bluebird) as opposed to cold adapted birds becoming locally extirpated and shifting northward.

This is pretty good news. Biodiveristy—which everyone seems to like—is on the rise.

The authors sagely point out that “[c]limate change should not be viewed as the sole driver

of changes in winter bird communities in eastern North America,” and note that changing landscapes, changing backyard bird feeding habits, changes in the observing network, etc., may play some role in the results. They also note that the changing community structure of the bird species may act to alter the “biotic interations” within the winter bird communities, implying that there may be ultimately be winner and losers (hint: a “W” for cats).

But, the data show that bird species are pretty much doing what rational climate optimists (h/t to Matt Ridley) expected all along, that is, adapting to changing climate conditions—and not only adapting, but thriving. And cats are purring with approval.


Princé, K.. and B. Zuckerberg, 2014. Climate change in our backyards: the reshuffling of North America’s winter bird communities. Global Change Biology, doi:10.1111/gcb.12740.

Ridley, M., 2010. The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves. Harper, New York. 480pp.

Global Science Report is a feature from the Center for the Study of Science, where we highlight one or two important new items in the scientific literature or the popular media. For broader and more technical perspectives, consult our monthly “Current Wisdom.”

94 thoughts on “Backyard Birds Spreading as Climate Changes

    • “Climate change forcing pests further north as they attempt to escape the rising temperatures”
      There you go; disaster mongers can now be satisfied

  1. Thriving in climate change? How can that be, it’s settled, it’s a fact, the climate apocolypse is upon us. Taking every precaution, I am bringing my umbrella wherever I go.

    • “Organo” is slang for a green, vegan, Prius-driving, Whole Foods-shopping, individual who actually thinks he/she is “saving” the environment. California and Oregon are the Mecca and Medina of this religion.

      • Amen and pass the Kale. As a life long resident of the “organo” state I can vouch for this description.

      • You might be surprised at some of the people who own EVs. I’m one of them. I’m a car nut. That’s all. My EV is a great in-city runabout, and it’s been interesting to study and observe the details. (Among other things, it gets a year-’round average of 110 equivalent miles per gallon, ranging from 90 mpg-e in the winter to 130 mpg-e in the summer.
        My other vehicle is a Ram 3500 crew cab long bed diesel that gets about 15 or 16 miles per gallon on the highway. I use it for road trips to the back country. Each vehicle has it’s appropriate use. And climate change? Well, I’m here. I think AGW is an unscientific political scam. Beef is what’s for dinner, and I’ve been in the Whole Foods in my neighborhood exactly once. Not only is it a ripoff, but I can’t live with that much virtue.

      • I saw Organo and thought, cool, pizza. Then, I had visions of Priuses, “veggies”, tree-huggers, and the like. Great thread going on over at KPIX about vegans, a nut, and her “daughter” named snow (a chicken)….some folks have too much thyme 🙂 on their hands…
        (Quick, RoundTable to the rescue…).

      • For Jake J,
        So just what is the scientific or engineering basis for your “equivalent miles per gallon” exchange rate ??
        I don’t think you can use say an annualized cost at the pump for gas, versus an annualized metered cost from your electricity company who charges your battery. The subsidies are not equivalent.

      • I own three hybrids, two 2010 Honda Insight Gen 2’s, and a collector item 2000 Insight. Safe transport. Organos won’t blow one up!

    • Organo; Oregano, it’s all about the same. A whole flock of my Socal socialist relatives in law, after spending years and their voting power turning California, into a basket case, have all taken off for Oregon, to help do the same to that once very nice State. Yes they complain that they don’t want to raise their kids, in the corruption of California; that they helped to fertilize.
      We typically visit the local “farmers market” on Saturdays, which bristles with certified “organic” produce, which generally means raised on chicken ****. An entrance sign prominently pronounces that you can use your “Everybody But Taxpayers” card in the market. I tell them, that I don’t eat “organic foods” as they all have carbon in them, and the SCOTUS said that carbon is poisonous. They think I’m daft. I always buy one cauliflower from a family farm that is not organic, but grows very tasty vegetables. And I tell everybody that comes by to by a cauliflower from that guy.
      As for Electric cars. Tesla is a money losing enterprise that survives because they are arbitrarily awarded carbon credits by “who knows”, which they sell to manufacturers of profitable cars. Well it’s legal but it is immoral.
      And it’s an ugly car, with that 1950s grill turned down mouth look. Most California Tesla owners (Model S, and now D) flout the California motor vehicles law, which requires licence plates, front and back.
      But I do think it has some nice engineering in it, although I would do it differently.
      I could see myself buying electric for some purposes, but only when they are cost competitive without taxpayer subsidization.
      Welfare is welfare, whether it is Elon Musk or Joe Citizen.
      And Elon’s freebie is about to get cut off.

  2. One of the most heartening parts of their study is that they consider and explicitely state other factors that could effect their results. It would be nice to see studies by climate change alarmists make similar statements about their claims.

  3. There’s plenty of evidence that life likes a warmer climate. Warmer than it is now.
    What are we supposed to be so afraid of?

  4. Backyard birds. So they live closer to man made structures like houses and roads. Sounds more like UHI to me. Same thing I see at this time of year in central Texas. Grackles start to congregate at night in the trees and power lines near shopping centers and parking lots. The birds have learned that man made things retain heat at night even if climate researchers haven’t.

  5. I have heard that as habitats get broken up, get less contiguous, that more aggressive birds squeeze out less aggressive birds.
    Less aggressive birds survive better in a more geographically extended forest. The more aggressive birds flit between open spaces into forest edge and back. As forest is broken up, the more aggressive birds come around and exploit food resources, squeezing out the less aggressive birds.
    Eastern Bluebirds favor more open areas compared to more dense forest. They could be making a come-back as territory gets more broken up.

    • Other than the fact that forest / number of trees has been growing in the NE over the last 100 years.
      By 1997, forest growth exceeded harvest by 42 percent and the volume of forest growth was 380 percent greater than it had been in 1920.” The greatest gains have been seen on the East Coast (with average volumes of wood per acre almost doubling since the ’50s) which was the area most heavily logged by European settlers beginning in the 1600s, soon after their arrival.
      Read more:

    • Think of suburbia back yards as becoming the equivalent of many small open meadows, almost perfect Bluebird habitats.
      That is so long as the suburbanites don’t spray their yards with insecticides and keep their cats under tight control. (Bluebirds are insectivores and rarely come to bird feeders)
      Here in central Virginia I tried to put out bluebird birdhouses; I got birdhouses filled with chipmunks (striped ground squirrel).
      I also put up a marten house high up a telescoping pole. The biggest toughest looking bluebirds I’ve ever seen take control of it every spring. One bluebird family with fourteen potential nesting spots and they try a bunch of them before settling on one or two. Every winter when I clean the bird house I wonder why one pair of bluebirds builds so many partial and complete nests.
      Bluebirds do stay in forest cover for the winter; but they prefer to stay in evergreen trees near to their breeding grounds if they can.

  6. Sparrows and wrens are cool but we want to know more about the tits. These things are hard when it’s cold.

      • Indeed! How about that. I have these words learned long ago that bang around in my head but I fear over time they lose their initial spelling. For example “suprasegmental” sometimes comes out as supersegmental. And then I have to look it up. Why? Because my spell checker ability in my computer is not exactly college level. It never heard of “suprasegmental”, let alone the features thereof.

  7. It’s amazing that we have different types of Parrot that have colonized London. These are tropical birds that are now out competing native species. So the native ones are losing out because of ‘climate change’, and the parrots are eating all their food and are in London because…?
    It seems they escaped somehow but I’m absolutely certain they are not here because it’s warmer than where they come from.

  8. which are both expanding their ranges northward as well as increasing their populations within already established ranges
    and they attribute this to climate change….and not healthier conditions
    You can’t win with these morons

  9. There has been a concerted effort in the US to build birdhouses, and especially houses designed for bluebirds. This is but one of a number of “anthropic” contributions to wildlife. Another bird–hardly a backyard bird–that has been helped significantly is the osprey, with construction of nesting platforms on power line structures. Similar structures have been built for storks in Europe for many years. Nesting habitat is sometimes crucial, since, given a secure nest, many birds are able to adapt their foraging habits to altered circumstances.

    • Yes you are correct. The Eastern Bluebird was saved by private conservation (not some government program) when schoolchildren pressured their parents to install little bluebird shelters. It really is a beautiful bird, rivaled IMHO only by the Barn Swallow for attractiveness in the small bird category.

    • I’ve heard a blue jay do a perfect imitation of a red-tail hawk in my back yard, they are mimickers.

      • I wondered about that here in Colorado. Keep hearing the high, trailing sound of a circling hawk, but when I poke my head out the door, I only see the jay. Wondered if they might be emulating predatory sounds to drive off competing nesters(?)

    • In the same way that an average can stay the same while the standard deviation can change, which is essentially what the “extreme weather” argument is about. Of course you must then justify how that is possible as it relates to climate, since heat and variations thereof over the earth is what drives it all.

  10. One problem regarding “climate change” in eastern North America. The 2 coldest Winters in over 30 years were 2009/10 and 2013/14.
    I realize that the study was only from 1990-2011(Winters were actually milder until the later years)
    If southern species have migrated northward, then they’ve been getting their ars kicked by recent WInters.

    • Or it could be that the researchers have inserted the obligatory “climate change” because it puts them into another realm of grant seeking possibilities.

    • From the article— “Princé and Zuckerberg found that the average environmental temperature characteristic of the observed bird assemblages should have produced a “northward shift in the community composition of wintering birds” of about 93 miles during the period 1990-2011.”
      I find it difficult to call a northward shift of 93 miles a “migration”. This is an interesting article but another example of observing normal ebb and flow of populations(fill in your reasons). Nature adapts. That is news?

  11. Nearly every study I have perused as well as our own research in the Sierra Nevada shows any negative changes in bird populations were solely due to landscape changes and climate change has had no negative impact. Other ornithologists tell me many of California’s bird populations are moving in the exact opposite directions predicted by climate change alarmists.

    • Don’t worry Jim. A few more windmills will take care of any increase in bird and bat populations. Thoroughly enjoyed Landscapes and Cycles. I’m on my third copy as alarmist acquaintances I lend to keep mislaying it. 🙂

  12. Except of course if you are a Greater Sage grouse. Then you MUST be endangered so that the eco-terrorists can take away your property rights in order to fulfil their desire to strangle energy development in the Inter-Mountain Western US.
    From recent publication where the First Author is from The Nature Conservancy and the Senior author is from the U.S. Geological Survey, Wyoming Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit.
    They write in the Introduction:
    “The overlap of large natural gas, oil, and wind
    resources with sagebrush habitat has exacerbated
    conflicts with sagebrush-dependent species like
    sage-grouse. Energy development reduces the
    amount of available habitat and increases anthropogenic
    disturbance, which reduces lek
    attendance, nest initiation rates, nesting success,
    and survival of adult females. Additionally, sage-grouse
    are highly sensitive to other types of human
    disturbance, such as roads, residential areas,
    pipelines, vehicle traffic and noise.”
    The intent is to use the sage grouse as an “umbrella species” to protect EVERYTHING from energy development since it’s range is so large.

    • Sounds suspiciously like the spotted owl and logging back in the day in California. Only it wasn’t energy development, it was the destruction of the logging industry in northern California in the name of old growth forest protection.

  13. I’ve always been amused how climate “scientists” have been claiming that climate change would cause massive extinctions, as though there has never been climate change in the past.

  14. If I am near a Great Sage Grouse, it is ALWAYS in danger of becoming extinct! And then smothered in gravy.

  15. So I’m not a scientist, but did watch bugs bunny episode with the super genius coyote, and I can begin every sentence with the word “so” (learned that from NPR). So I observed the leaf colors this fall were bright due to AGW, the brightest color on record (I took notes since 2012, very scientific), unprecedented. So using new math and statistical techniques, we can project that continued carbon pollution (some say leaf color isn’t tied to that, but I think it is, that should be good enough for Mr. Stokes) will make leaf color so bright, it will cause millions to go blind. So the science that very bright light can cause blindness is pretty much settled. So where can I pick up the grant?

  16. would love to see bird like that here (central maine) as its pretty. not much color here, not as many blue jays as we used to see (so its quieter…) but no real colorful birds.
    hell I am here all day, would be nice to see LOL

    • Get a decent pair of binoculars ?, or a spotting scope.
      You might be surprised what you can see 🙂

      • its not really an issue like that, I really see a lot of birds here. sometimes swarms of them.
        robins/sparrows/chickadees/doves/woodpeckers/owls/some (as said not many lately) blue jays/many bright beautiful hummingbirds/crows/ravens/hawks/finches/etc.
        I do see yellow and orange finch(iirc) a bit but not the real bright blue colored birds that I would like to see here.
        see tons of turkeys too but those are ugly so don’t count 🙂
        spent most of my life in the woods here and have never seen a bluebird like pictured here.

    • Now, if you do invest in some finely ground glass, it works best without the distortions of looking thru a screen and/or cheap window glass, so open them 🙂

  17. I hadn’t seen a blue bird since I was a kid and now for the last three years we’ve had them in our back yard. We also have geese which we didn’t have 60 years ago.

  18. Monk Parakeets have been hanging out in Chicago since 1973. They build large nests made of sticks sometimes on top of the transformers on street power lines. The nests have been known to short out the transformers and go up in flames. A bit small, but I would be willing to bet they would taste better than Sage Grouse.

    • Clearly you have not had Sage Grouse. Like chicken but decidedly more flavorful (unless you grow your own free range chickens). While there are only two birds in the genus Centrocercus, and sometimes are referred to as a prairie chicken they are unrelated to the domesticated chicken and are instead in the same family as pheasants and other partridge-like grouse. Field dressing these birds is as easy as gutting a fish.
      Domesticated chickens are an ancient domesticated breed (likely from the common jungle fowl) and appear to have few genes in common with other wild chicken-like birds.

      • With all due respect MS Pam, yes, you are a teacher. I can’t think of a game animal I haven’t hunted, winged or on four legs. I would put bear and sage grouse at the bottom of my table list. Teddy Roosevelt once remarked that mountain loin wasn’t half bad. Half is about right with me. I have met many people that hunt sage but won’t eat them. I won’t eat them so I don’t hunt them. The sage taste is not to my liking. Ruffed grouse and blue grouse are superb. I guess I was never born to be green, easy for me to be a skeptic. So yes, I have read many of your post and consider your attitude very reasonable. Please don’t assume much about me. Be nice as I will be going on what I call my last great adventure and moving out of the country in a year or so. I look forward to reading your future posts. My best, Ric

      • I love it when people assume 🙂
        next up could be (I don’t think Pamela is the type to do this) the “well you didn’t prepare it correctly” feint.
        I deal with this when talking about beer. I have never had a beer I liked and I have tried many. I don’t like the taste.
        so of course then it turns into the acquired taste argument. my reply to that is if I have to force myself to like something how good is it to begin with? So I don’t drink beer.
        now I have never had sage grouse, not something I can easily get up here but it is something I have wanted to try.

  19. Interesting. You picked the time interval of warming as twenty years between 1990 and 2011 You are right in the sense that the last warming is included in this interval but it took much less time than 20 years. It was a step warming that started in 1999, in three years raised global temperature by a third of a degree Celsius, then stopped and faded in with today’s hiatus. For bird habitat change you could add the super El Nino and get a total warming time of five years to accomplish this temperature change. This is actually the only warming we have had since 1979 when satellite measurements began. It was preceded by a slow warming from the late forties to 1980. It took that long for global temperature to recover from the abrupt World War II cold wave that started in 1940 and lasted for the entire war. From the end of the recovery in 1980 until the beginning of the super El Nino in 1997 global temperature was flat for 18 years, just like the hiatus we are having now. Unfortunately almost all temperature curves show the forties as a maximum and the temperature drop of 1940 as happening after the war was over. You probably don’t remember this but the battle of Suomissalmi, part of the Finnish Winter War, was fought at minus 40 Celsius and in meter deep snow in January 1940. The Russians had dispatched two divisions to cut Finland in half but the Finns destroyed them, killed 9000 Russians in the process, and captured their tanks and ammunition as well. The famous “Molotov coctail” that Russians later employed against the Germans was born there. Its original use was against Russian tanks by Finns, not against German tanks by Russians as happened later when Stalin and Hitler had a falling out. That Finnish winter war, by the way, was a consequence of the pact between Stalin and Hitler to divide up Eastern Europe between the two of them that started World War II going.

  20. Turns out climate change is for the birds, too. Yes, Little Eastern Bluebirds (which almost went extinct because of habitat damage) raising their young in cute houses, awakening us with their melodious songs, providing free cat food, and selectively pooping only on my car. What’s not to like?

    Spoken like a true curmudgeon.

  21. Just to toss a data point out there. I saw a bluebird in my yard in California a few months ago. I hadn’t seen one in years.

    • We’ve got two or three couples of bluebirds every year. They bang their heads in our kitchen window in the morning.
      Some people chase a blue bird all their lives. Me? As Joseph Haydn shrugged when Beethoven complained to him that women don’t love him: “I can’t get rid of them.”

  22. Here in Mechanicsville [suburban Richmond] VA, we hear or see a wide variety of birds: bob-whites, chuck-wills-widow, peregrine falcon, red-tailed hawk, bald eagle, eastern bluebird, various grackles, starlings, Canada geese, once an indigo bunting, cardinals, once or twice a scarlet tanager, smaller hawks (Cooper’s, I think), mallard ducks, and doubtless others I can’t think of right now. The outdoors is frequently cacophonous with bird and insect calls. I love it. Many live here year around, while others just pass through. Our cat doesn’t go after them; if she goes for anything, it’s bunnies, which multiply far more rapidly than she can control. What goes after little birds around here? I’ve seen possums and raccoons elsewhere in our neighborhood (well beyond our cat’s range) snuffling around little carcasses, but have no evidence they actually caught the birdlings. Anyway, in spite of being at the edge of suburbia, I live in a wild place.

  23. ‘Eastern Bluebirds’? We have flocks of them in Western Colorado. The only change I have seen here is the Osprey. They seem common now, never saw one before 7-8 years ago.

    • Well Steve, we have Ospreys here in California, and I’ve seen plenty of them in the Florida Keys.
      Ergo, they can go wherever there are fishes, and they might pass through Colorado, on the way from East to West or verse vicea.

      • That’s entirely possible George. It is just that after being in the same spot for over twenty years, seeing none for fifteen years, and now seeing pairs all summer long seems like a change. I am on a waterway where we get eagles and herons, and lots of other hawks, just the Osprey seem new. I am on a year round creek so I wouldn’t be surprised if they are nesting.

      • My son and I fish a certain lake in California each spring, when white bass are spawning in a river up a narrow canyon. Time it right, and you can catch a fish on every cast. (fly fishing)
        For quite a few years now, bald eagles have been nesting around the lake, and in the canyon, and there are at least six breeding pairs, that I know of. We look for them when scouting the river, because an eagle up a tree, especially if it has a juvenile with it, is a pretty good sign that the nearby pond in the river, has a school of fish in it.
        This year back in March, the water was very low and we missed the timing, but we found an adult with a juvenile sitting in trees near one pond, so we decided to fish there. The fish were not on the bite, and tough to get a grab, but they were there, and from time to time, there would be a crash in the water, 20 feet from the boat, and the adult would snare a fish, and hoist it off to junior, hidden in a nearby tree. The parent had a perfect spot on top of a high pine tree, from which to spot the fish, and launch an attack.
        It wasn’t at all bothered by us, and I managed to get a couple of pretty good photos of it, with a long 400 mm zoom lens, with my camera operating in a 2X magnification mode, so I was effectively hand holding an 800 mm f;5.6 lens. There are plenty of other hawks (red tails) and lots of turkey buzzards, and wild turkeys too. It’s like being on another planet.

    • Steve Keohane said 10/18 11:20 am

      ‘Eastern Bluebirds’? We have flocks of them in Western Colorado

      More likely these are Western Bluebirds, whose range includes western Colorado, whereas the Eastern Bluebird is not normally found in Colorado at all, according to range maps from Cornell Labs:The Mountain bluebird is also found in Colorado.
      In response to Mac the Knife (below-10/18, 10:17pm )
      I’m doubtful that cats would be able to get to the barn swallow’s nest – at least most swallow’s nests I’ve seen – or that the cat would be able to prey on the young barn swallows once they fledge, save for those unfortunate few swallows whose first flight is to the ground – probably less than one in ten for the many swallows I’ve seen leave their mud pellet nests. Other than that, swallows tend to land on a higher perch, coming to ground primarily only to gather mud for their nests, so I’m wondering if you’ve witnessed predation by cats on your nesting swallows, or if this is just an educated guess.
      It is almost exclusively birds that hunt on or near the ground (low branches) who are most likely to be victimized by the cat. In addition to prowling silently, many cats simply lie in wait in a comfortable, shady spot where they’ve seen, or caught, birds before.
      But I’ve had the same problem with the feral cat feeders in a former neighborhood, where I found a concealed feeding station near one creek. In addition, a certain Central Coast ignoramus was releasing stray cats near the Morro Bay bird sanctuary. I won’t even get (much) into people who feed birds bread crumbs, except to plead: Please don’t do it: white bread provides no nutritional benefit to birds, but fills them up. Eventually, such birds may weaken, and be easy prey for the many predators who feed on them.
      George, nice work with the long lens, but I’d suggest you leave the 2x digital zoom out of your process: it’s making your job more difficult, and you can get the 2x zoom, and more, on your desktop.
      Osprey nest around Boulder, Colorado and were a familiar sight flying back and forth from fishing hole to nest platform east of town.
      But cats are bad news for birds, and I suggest dogs are too.
      Sorry for the late reply. I’d like to add more to this thread, but some wonderful human has managed to trash my free wireless network, and my online time will be severely curtailed from here on out.

  24. At my home locale south of Seattle, the local song birds are in decline. So are skinks, garter snakes, frogs, and just about every other small animal. It seems to have an inverse relationship with having not one but two ‘cat rescue’ cat ladies in the immediate neighborhood… and the corresponding high feral cat population to go with them. I don’t think the barn swallows that nested in the beams under my 2nd story deck managed to successfully fledge any of their 5 babies this year.
    I think I could get to like coyotes, if they’d thin the feral cat herd out regularly.

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