Climate change is already documented as having impacted many bird species

Common Cuckoo Cuculus canorus, © Rudo Jureček/ Flickr

Nearly one quarter of bird species studied globally have already been documented as having been negatively affected by climate change. Given that scientific research has been largely limited to Europe and North America, this figure is certainly an underestimation and indicates that even the relatively modest temperature increase experienced to date has had a considerable impact on global biological diversity.

A thorough literature review covering 570 bird species from across the globe has found that climate-driven changes—in distribution, phenology and abundance—have already had negative impacts for 24% of bird species (Pacifici et al. in review). Given the paucity of data available for South America, Africa and Asia, this figure is likely to be a considerable underestimation. Of the species studied in detail, only 13% have had a positive effect from climate change, whilst the effects remain uncertain for nearly half of all species studied.

Of those species negatively impacted, declines in abundance and range size are the most common impacts, with reduced survival rate, breeding success and recruitment being less frequently cited as causes of these effects (Pacifici et al. in review).

Climate is a critical factor in determining species’ geographical ranges (Pearson and Dawson 2003). Although it is difficult to causally link an observed shift in a single species’ range to changes in climate, the consistent patterns documented for avifauna around the world are compelling. As global temperatures have risen, species’ ranges have moved poleward in latitude and upwards in elevation, though there is variation in these responses (Auer and King 2014, Environmental Protection Agency 2014 ,Virkkala and Lehikoinen 2014, Gillings et al. 2015, Zuckerberg et al. 2009, Archaux 2004, Peh 2007, Popy et al. 2010, Maggini et al. 2011, Forero-Medina et al. 2011, Reif and Flousek 2012,Harris et al. 2012, Tingley et al. 2012, Freeman and Freeman 2014). Taken collectively, these observations provide convincing evidence that climate change is already impacting the distribution of avian communities. 

In North America, over 200 bird species have experienced northward range shifts consistent with climate change (e.g. La Sorte and Thompson 2007, Hitch and Leberg 2007, Zuckerberg et al. 2009). Similar findings have been reported in Europe (Gillings et al. 2015, Thomas and Lennon 1999, Brommer 2004), where the largest climate change induced range shifts have been recorded (Maclean et al. 2008). However, despite this, the magnitude of these responses may still be insufficient to keep pace with climate change. In France, for example, the temperature increase since 1989 is equivalent to a northward shift of 273 km; however, over the same period there has only been a 91 km northward shift in bird community composition (Devictor et al. 2008). Effectively, birds are lagging behind climate warming, and the long-term implications of this discrepancy could be profound.

Climate warming has had a notable effect on the temperate seasons—with markedly earlier springs and a delayed onset of autumn (Menzel et al. 2006, Schwartz et al. 2006). In general, there has been a trend towards earlier spring arrival of migratory species (Butler 2003, Gordo and Sanz 2006, Jonzén et al. 2006, Tøttrup et al. 2006, Beaumont et al. 2006) and earlier breeding (Forchhammer et al. 1998, Crick and Sparks 1999). However, these phenological responses have not been consistent across taxa. Many bird species—having evolved to synchronise the timing of their annual routines (e.g. migration and breeding) with the life cycles of other species (e.g. predators and prey)—are becoming increasingly ecologically mismatched (Visser et al. 1998, Both and Visser 2001). For example, whilst the brood-parasitic Common Cuckoo Cuculus canorus has advanced its migration only modestly, many of its host species are now arriving at the breeding grounds considerably earlier (Saino et al. 2009). Those species unable to adequately respond to climate change may find themselves at a considerable disadvantage (Ahola et al. 2007, Møller et al. 2008).

Given that the rise in global average temperature has been relatively modest to date, the number of documented impacts on the world’s avifauna is sobering. It suggests that the impact of future climate warming on biological communities, and consequently ecosystem integrity, could be severe.


This case study is taken from ‘The Messengers: What birds tell us about threats from climate change and solutions for nature and people’. To download the report in full click here. 

Related Species


Ahola, M., Laaksonen, T., Eeva, T. and Lehikoinen, E. (2007) Climate change can alter competitive relationships between resident and migratory birds. J. Anim. Ecol. 76: 1045–1052.
Archaux, F. (2004) Breeding upwards when climate is becoming warmer: no bird response in the French Alps. Ibis 146: 138–144.
Auer, S. K. and King, D. I. (2014) Ecological and life-history traits explain recent boundary shifts in elevation and latitude of western North American songbirds. Glob. Ecol. Biogeogr. 23: 867–875.
Beaumont, L. J., McAllan, I. A. W. and Hughes, L. (2006) A matter of timing: changes in the first date of arrival and last date of departure of Australian migratory birds. Glob. Change Biol. 12: 1339–1354.
Both, C. and Visser, M. E. (2001) Adjustment to climate change is constrained by arrival date in a long-distance migrant bird. Nature 411: 296–298.
Brommer, J. (2004) The range margins of northern birds shift polewards. Ann. Zool. Fennici 41: 391–397.
Butler, C. J. (2003) The disproportionate effect of global warming on the arrival dates of short-distance migratory birds in North America. Ibis 145: 484–495.
Crick, H. Q. P. and Sparks, T. H. (1999) Climate change related to egg-laying trends. Nature 399: 423–424.
Devictor, V., Julliard, R., Couvet, D. and Jiguet, F. (2008) Birds are tracking climate warming, but not fast enough. Proc. R. Soc. Lond. Ser. B 275, 2743–2748.
Environmental Protection Agency (2014) Climate change indicators in the United States: Bird Wintering Ranges. Available at:
Forchhammer, M. C., Post, E. and Stenseth, N. C. (1998) Breeding phenology and climate. Nature 391: 29–30.
Forero-Medina, G., Terborgh, J., Socolar, S. J. and Pimm, S. L. (2011) Elevational ranges of birds on a tropical montane gradient lag behind warming temperatures. PLoS ONE 6: e28535.
Freeman, B. G. and Freeman, A. M. C. (2014) Rapid upslope shifts in New Guinean birds illustrate strong distributional responses of tropical montane species to global warming. PNAS 111: 4490–4494.
Gillings, S., Balmer, D. E. and Fuller, R. J. (2015) Directionality of recent bird distribution shifts and climate change in Great Britain. Glob. Change Biol. 21: 2155–2168.
Gordo, O. and Sanz, J. J. (2006) Climate change and bird phenology: a long-term study in the Iberian Peninsula. Glob. Change Biol. 12: 1993–2004.
Harris, J. B. C., Yong, D. L., Sheldon, F. H., Boyce, A. J., Eaton, J. A., Bernard, H., Biun, A., Langevin, A., Martin, T. E. and Wei, D. (2012) Using diverse data sources to detect elevational range changes of birds on Mount Kinabalu, Malaysian Borneo. Raffles B. Zool. 25: 197–247.
Hitch, A. T. and Leberg, P. L. (2007) Breeding distributions of north American bird species moving north as a result of climate change. Conserv. Biol. 21: 534–539.
Jonzén, N., Lindén, A., Ergon, T., Knudsen, E., Vik, J. O., Rubolini, D., Piacentini, D., Brinch, C., Spina, F., Karlsson, L., Stervander, M., Andersson, A., Waldenström, J., Lehikoinen, A., Edvardsen, E., Solvang, R. and Stenseth, N. C. (2006) Rapid advance of spring arrival dates in long-distance migratory birds. Science 312: 1959–1961.
La Sorte, F. A. and Thompson, F. R. (2007) Poleward shifts in winter ranges of North American birds. Ecology 88: 1803–1812.
Maclean, I. M. D., Austin, G. E., Rehfisch, M. M., Blew, J., Crowe, O., Delany, S., Devos, K., Deceuninck, B., Günther, K., Laursen, K., van Roomen, M. and Wahl, J. (2008) Climate change causes rapid changes in the distribution and site abundance of birds in winter. Glob. Change Biol. 14: 2489–2500.
Maggini, R., Lehmann A., Kéry, M., Schmid, H., Beniston, M., Jenni, L. and Zbinden, N. (2011) Are Swiss birds tracking climate change? Detecting elevational shifts using response curve shapes. Ecol. Model. 222: 21–32.
Menzel, A., Sparks, T. H., Estrella, N., Koch, E., Aasa, A., Ahas, R., Alm-Kubler, K., Bissolli, P.,Braslavska, Ol., Briede, A., Chmielewski, F. M., Crepinsek, Z., Curnel, Y., Dahl, A., Defila, C., Donnelly, A., Filella, Y., Jatczak, K., Mage, F., Mestre, A., Nordli, O., Penuelas, J., Pirinen, P., Remisova, V., Scheifinger, H., Striz, M., Susnik, A., Van Viet, A. J. H., Wielgolaski, F.-E., Zach, S. and Zust, A. (2006) European phenological response to climate change matches the warming pattern. Glob. Change Biol. 12: 1969–1976.
Møller, A. P., Rubolini, D. and Lehikoinen, E. (2008) Populations of migratory bird species that did not show a phenological response to climate change are declining. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 105: 16195–16200.
Pacifici, M., Visconti, P., Cassola, F. M., Watson, J. E. M., Butchart, S. H. M. and Rondinini, C. Most threatened bird and mammal species are likely to be already impacted by climate change. In review
Pearson, R. G. and Dawson, T. E. (2003) Predicting the impacts of climate change on the distribution of species: are bioclimate envelope models useful? Global Ecol. Biogeogr. 12: 361–371.
Peh, K. S. H. (2007) Potential effects of climate change elevational distributions of tripical birds in Southeast Asia. Condor 109: 437–441.
Popy, S., Bordignon, L. and Prodon, R. (2010) A weak upward elevational shift in the distributions of breeding birds in the Italian Alps. J. Biogeogr. 37: 57–67.
Reif, J. and Flousek, J. (2012) The role of species' ecological traits in climatically driven altitudinal range shifts of central European birds. Oikos 121: 1053–1060.
Saino, N., Rubolini, D., Lehikoinen, E., Sokolov, L. V., Bonisoli-Alquati, A., Ambrosini, R., Boncoraglio, G. and Møller, A. P. (2009) Climate change effects on migration phenology may mismatch brood parasitic cuckoos and their hosts. Biol. Lett. 5: 539–541.
Schwartz, M. D., Ahas, R. and Aasa, A. (2006) Onset of spring starting earlier across the Northern Hemisphere. Glob. Change Biol. 12: 343–351.
Thomas, C. D. and Lennon, J. J. (1999) Birds extend their ranges northwards. Nature 399: 213.
Tingley, M. W., Koo, M. S., Moritz, C., Rush, A. C. and Beissinger, S. R. (2012) The push and pull of climate change causes heterogeneous shifts in avian elevational ranges. Glob. Change Biol. 18: 3279–3290.
Tøttrup, A. P., Thorup, K. and Rahbek, C. (2006) Patterns of change in timing of spring migration in North European songbird populations. J. Avian Biol. 37: 84–92.
Virkkala, R. and Lehikoinen, A. (2014) Patterns of climate-induced density shifts of species: poleward shifts faster in northern boreal birds than in southern birds. Glob. Change Biol. 20: 2995–3003.
Visser, M. E., Vannoordwijk, A. J., Tinbergen, J. M., and Lessells, C. M. (1998) Warmer springs lead to mistimed reproduction in Great Tits (Parus major). Proc. R. Soc. Lond. Ser. B 265: 1867–1870.
Zuckerberg, B., Woods, A. M. and Porter, W. F. (2009) Poleward shifts in breeding bird distributions in New York State. Glob. Change Biol. 15: 1866–1883.

Compiled: 2009    Last updated: 2015    Copyright: 2015   

Recommended Citation:
BirdLife International (2015) Climate change is already documented as having impacted many bird species. Downloaded from on 04/12/2023