Environmental and demographic drivers of migratory strategies in birds

Lead Research Organisation: University of East Anglia
Department Name: Biological Sciences


Throughout the world, the distribution, abundance and behaviour of species is changing in response to climatic changes, presenting severe challenges for species conservation. Changes in range size and distribution can be particularly challenging for the site-based conservation strategies that form the backbone of most legislative and policy frameworks for conservation. Changes in distribution and abundance in response to environmental and climatic changes are ultimately a consequence of the complex ecological and behavioural processes that drive individual fitness and population demography. Understanding and quantifying these processes that drive species responses to environmental change is therefore a major challenge in ecology and conservation.

The coastal regions of the UK and continental Europe support internationally important populations of many migratory waders and wildfowl that breed at subarctic and arctic latitudes. Rapid and ongoing changes in the behaviour of these migratory species in response to climate change can alter their non-breeding distribution, and understanding the causes of these changes is needed in order to maintain effective systems of site and species protection. In particular, changes in the frequency of migratory and non-migratory (ie resident) individuals within populations can fundamentally alter their non-breeding distribution, but the causes of such changes in migratory behaviour are unknown. One major potential driver of these changes are the shifts in timing of breeding that are being widely reported in migratory species at present. Advanced timing of breeding can directly influence individual fitness and, if residents tend to breed earlier than migrants, advances may disproportionately benefit residents. For example, earlier spring warming could benefit residents if subsequent earlier nesting is more successful and/or if they have more time for replacement clutches following nest loss. However, the consequences of such changes for population abundance and distribution will also depend upon the mechanisms determining migratory behaviour, and particularly whether being resident or migrant is a facultative response to local environmental conditions that can vary annually, or a deterministic response to early life conditions that is repeated in subsequent years. Predicting the consequences of changes in migratory behaviour for the non-breeding distribution of migratory populations therefore requires an understanding of the fitness consequences of different migratory strategies, and the mechanistic processes driving these differences.

Addressing these issues requires model systems in which diverse individual migratory strategies can be identified within the same population, and in which detailed studies of the links between environmental conditions and individual fitness are possible. We propose to quantify the mechanisms determining the relative fitness associated with different migratory strategies, and the factors determining the initiation and maintenance of individual migratory strategies, in an established study population of Eurasian oystercatchers in Iceland in which both resident and migrant strategies are present. This information will be key to predicting the consequences of future climatic and environmental change for the distribution of migratory species, and the implications for site-based conservation strategies.

Planned Impact

The outputs of this study will be of interest and relevance to ecologists and conservationists in Iceland and all other countries with similar concerns about how to protect migratory species in the face of environmental and climatic change. Iceland is among the most recent of the 119 range states that are parties to the African-Eurasian Waterbird Agreement (AEWA), the aim of which is to "establish coordinated conservation and management of migratory waterbirds throughout their entire migratory range". Improved understanding of the factors influencing the status and distribution of migratory birds is a key component of designing and delivering international conservation action. In particular, the information generated by this study will be of use in understanding the influence of climatic change on migratory behaviour, and consequent changes in species distribution which form the basis of most conservation action. We have developed strong links with conservation bodies, government and international organisations throughout Europe, and we are directly involved in the development and implementation of international species management plans, as members of the AEWA working group for black-tailed godwits (http://blacktailedgodwit.aewa.info/), and through our organisation of workshops for researchers, policy-makers and conservationists to aid the development of EU and AEWA management plans for black-tailed godwits. Our close connection to statutory agencies and NGOs concerned with the conservation of migratory species in Europe provides us with invaluable support in designing our studies and communicating our findings appropriately. In addition, our migratory bird research has a substantial 'citizen science' element, through the direct involvement of many birdwatchers and members of the public in tracking colour-marked birds, allowing us to involve and communicate with a broad public audience. Over 2000 volunteers across Europe have contributed observations to our previous tracking studies (at an estimated value of <£1 million per annum, given a daily "skilled labourer" cost of £140), and the proposed study would aim to strengthen those links further.


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Description Through tracking of marked wild birds we have established the identity of migrant and resident individuals, and we are now able to explore the factors that influence these differences in migratory behaviour.
Exploitation Route The changes in migratory behaviour that we are exploring have direct implications for site protection policies across migratory ranges.
Sectors Environment

Description Public involvement in research, through contributions of observations of marked wild birds
First Year Of Impact 2015
Sector Environment
Impact Types Societal

Title Individual variation in migratory behavior in a sub-arctic partial migrant shorebird 
Description Migratory behavior can differ markedly amongst individuals within populations or species. Understanding the factors influencing this variation is key to understanding how current environmental changes might influence migratory propensity and the distribution and abundance of migratory species across their range. Here, we investigate variation in migratory behavior of the partially migratory Eurasian oystercatcher (Haematopus ostralegus) population breeding in Iceland. We use resightings of color-ringed adults and stable isotopes to determine whether individuals migrate or remain in Iceland during winter and test whether individual migratory strategies vary in relation to sex, body size and breeding location. We also explore individual consistency in migratory strategy and test whether assortative mating with respect to strategy occurs in this population. The proportion of migrants and residents varied greatly across breeding locations, but not with respect to sex or body size. Individuals were consistent in migratory strategy between years and there was no evidence of assortative mating by migratory strategy. We use these findings to explore factors underlying the evolution and maintenance of partial migration at high latitudes. 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2020 
Provided To Others? Yes  
URL http://datadryad.org/stash/dataset/doi:10.5061/dryad.000000010
Description Blog series - ceecscience 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact We run a blog site describing our research
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017,2018
URL https://ceecscience.wordpress.com/
Description Blog series - wadertales 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact We work closely with a professional science communicator to produce blogs describing our research
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015,2016,2017,2018
URL https://wadertales.wordpress.com/
Description Public communication 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Regular communication with volunteers who contribute data to the study, and frequent presentations of research findings to the public

We regularly give public presentations (2-3 per year) on our research in order to foster public understanding of science and to encourage direct involvement in the study by volunteer citizen scientists
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity Pre-2006,2006,2007,2008,2009,2010,2011,2012,2013,2014,2015,2016,2017,2018