Climate Change and Heat Stress Threaten Arctic Snow Buntings

Research on climate change and its effects on songbirds is not new. In October 2019, the Audubon Society released a study titled “Survival by Degrees: 389 Bird Species on the Brink”. The bottom line? Two-thirds of North America’s bird species risk extinction due to climate change.

Ornithologists have studied bird migration patterns for more than a century. In February 2020, a study was published in The Auk: Ornithological Advances on the migration patterns and timing of the black-throated blue warbler. Findings suggest the timing of the bird’s migration has been advancing approximately one day earlier per decade over the past 50 years. While not significant, a noteworthy change nonetheless as scientists claim this warbler is the proverbial “canary in the coalmine”.

Research suggests that dramatic declines in North American bird populations since the 1970s is linked to climate change, among numerous other factors. Meanwhile, songbird body size is shrinking with an overall warmer climate.

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A study published in Ecology and Evolution in January on the snow bunting, an inhabitant of the Arctic, suggests that even minor increases in atmospheric temperature can have significant heat stress effects on individual birds. While their internal body temperature ranges from approximately 100 to 106 degrees Fahrenheit, excessive water loss due to heat stress is evident at approximately 93 degrees Fahrenheit.

The snow bunting’s nonbreeding range extends into the northern half of the United States, meaning increasing temperature on the fringes of their migration season can affect their behaviors, similar to the black-throated blue warbler. Additionally, the snow bunting cannot manage the effects of heat stress as efficiently as other species.

Additional research is needed to understand the behavioral ramifications of climate change-induced heat stress on these northerly inhabitants. However, ornithologists hypothesize that temperature hikes in their resident range will cause birds to spend more time resting, trying to keep cool, and less time foraging for themselves or their offspring. Future temperature effects on reproduction success may have population-level impacts to the species.


Even snowbirds may feel the heat – THE WILDLIFE SOCIETY

A climate-sensitive bird hints at global warming’s lasting impact (

Seasonally specific changes in migration phenology across 50 years in the Black-throated Blue Warbler | Ornithology | Oxford Academic (

Climate Change | Audubon Rockies

Brad Trumbo

Senior Staff Writer at Harvesting Nature Brad is an author and outdoor columnist who lives in southeast Washington State with his wife Ali and a pack of Llewellin setters on a small homestead. He serves the public as a fish and wildlife biologist and active Pheasants Forever life member. He pens conservation news for Harvesting Nature and authored the upland hunting book, Wingshooting the Palouse, which is available from Ingram Content Group and Amazon. You can find Brad on Instagram @tailfeathers_upland and @palouse_upland_media.

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