Arctic Seabird Populations Respond to Climate Change


Alaska’s Black-legged Kittiwakes are among the seabird species impacted by climate change. Photo credit: Marc Weber, USFWS

Seabirds such as gulls can be key indicators of environmental change as their populations respond to shifts in their ocean habitat over time. A new study from The Auk: Ornithological Advances investigates how several species have responded to changing environmental conditions in the Arctic over the last four decades. The authors find that a warming ocean is directly and indirectly affecting seabird populations in Alaska.

The University of Idaho’s Holly Goyert (now at the University of Massachusetts) and her colleagues used mathematical models to explore relationships between large, long-term datasets covering climate fluctuation, zooplankton abundance and distribution, and populations of several seabird species in the waters off Alaska from 1974 to 2014. They found that declines in populations of an Arctic gull called the Black-legged Kittiwake are tied to deteriorating zooplankton productivity, while their cousins the Red-legged Kittiwakes, also declining, are more sensitive to warming ocean surface temperatures. Not every seabird is in trouble, though—Common and Thick-billed Murres, relatives of puffins, have proved resilient to changing conditions and may even be benefitting.

This study is the first attempt to explain how climate and habitat variability affect seabird population dynamics across such a large scale. “Our hope is that these results will be used in a proactive approach to seabird conservation, and that measures will be taken to prevent populations from declining to small sizes. For example, although Black-legged Kittiwakes are one of the more abundant gulls in the world, their populations are undergoing significant declines, which calls their global status into question,” says Goyert. “Our paper suggests that the deterioration of food web resources such as krill, which is related to warming oceans, has contributed to these declines.”

“Mass seabird deaths and breeding failures in recent years have the scientific community puzzled, and both appear to be climate-related,” according to Melanie Smith, Audubon Alaska’s Director of Conservation Science, who was not involved in the study. “This study is an important step in clarifying the effects of changing climate on seabird population dynamics across Alaska. We can use what we’ve learned here to design detailed monitoring and to better anticipate population declines, improving managers’ ability to protect vulnerable species.”

Effects of climate change and environmental variability on the carrying capacity of Alaskan seabird populations is available at

About the journal: The Auk: Ornithological Advances is a peer-reviewed, international journal of ornithology published by the American Ornithological Society. The Auk commenced publication in 1884 and in 2009 was honored as one of the 100 most influential journals of biology and medicine over the past 100 years. The Auk has the #1 average Journal Impact Factor for the past 5 years for ornithology journals.

Where Do Crows Go in Winter?

AUK-18-23 M Jones

A crow with a satellite transmitter. Photo credit: M. Jones

“Partial migration”—where some individuals within a population migrate and some don’t—is common among birds and is speculated to be a step on the evolutionary path to complete, long-distance migration, but scientists know very little about how it actually works. A new study from The Auk: Ornithological Advances tracks where American Crows go during the winter and shows that while individuals are consistent in whether they migrate or stay put, partial migration might give them enough flexibility to adapt to changing environmental conditions.

Hamilton College’s Andrea Townsend and her colleagues captured crows in large winter flocks in Utica, New York, and Davis, California, fitting them with satellite transmitters to track their movements and collecting blood and feather samples. Their data show that 73% of western crows and 86% of eastern crows migrated at least some distance to breed, with an average journey of around 500 kilometers. Birds returned faithfully to the same breeding territory each year, and whether or not individuals migrated was consistent from one year to the next—they didn’t switch strategies depending on environmental conditions. However, they were flexible in where they spent the winter.

This information can serve as an important baseline for tracking how crows’ migratory behavior is affected by factors including climate change and urbanization. Urban “heat islands,” as well as general warming trends, could lead more birds to shorten their migration and spend the winter closer to their breeding territory. “If you live in a place, usually a city, with a huge winter flock of crows, you are seeing migratory birds that came south for the winter as well as your local, year-round crows,” says Townsend. “Personally, I find the sight of an 8000-crow roost exhilarating, but if they or their feces are driving you crazy, you can at least take comfort in knowing that most of them will disappear in early March.”

“It is surprising how much remains unknown about the seasonal movements of most partial migrant species, and this is especially true for variability among populations,” adds the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center’s Emily Cohen, an expert on migration patterns who was not involved with the study. “This kind of information about populations-specific annual movements is not trivial to collect, but is fundamental to understanding most aspects of the evolution and ecology of species.”

Where do winter crows go? Characterizing partial migration of American Crows with satellite telemetry, stable isotopes, and molecular markers is available at

About the journal: The Auk: Ornithological Advances is a peer-reviewed, international journal of ornithology published by the American Ornithological Society. The Auk commenced publication in 1884 and in 2009 was honored as one of the 100 most influential journals of biology and medicine over the past 100 years. The Auk has the #1 average Journal Impact Factor for the past 5 years for ornithology journals.

Mapping Endangered Red Knots’ Remote Breeding Habitat

CONDOR-17-247_REKN_Mark Peck

A nesting Red Knot. Photo credit: M. Peck

The rufa subspecies of Red Knot travels from its breeding grounds in the Canadian Arctic to its winter habitat in South America and back each year, an incredible 15,000 kilometers each way. Its numbers have fallen precipitously in recent decades, and with such a broad range, determining what’s behind the shorebird’s decline is a huge challenge. A new study from The Condor: Ornithological Applications examines Red Knot nesting habitat preferences across the Arctic and determines that while there is plenty of breeding habitat to support today’s population, climate change could pose a threat in the future.

Rutgers University’s Richard Lathrop, Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey’s Larry Niles, and their colleagues attached radio tags to 365 knots captured while migrating through Delaware Bay in 1999–2006. To learn where and in what sort of habitat the tagged birds nested, they then conducted surveys via small airplane across the south and central Canadian Arctic, a vast study area spanning from Victoria Island in the west to Baffin Island in the east. They also carried out detailed ground-based surveys on Nunavut’s Southampton Island. Across both scales, knots preferred to nest in sparsely vegetated areas on sedimentary bedrock, near but not directly adjacent to the coast or interior wetlands, to which they commute in order to forage.

The study shows that there are more than 74,000 square kilometers of suitable rufa Red Knot habitat across their Central Arctic breeding range—enough space for at least that many breeding pairs, assuming one square kilometer of territory per nest. Since the entire population currently numbers only around 42,000 individuals, it’s unlikely that a lack of available breeding habitat is contributing to the species’ decline; knots’ problems must lie elsewhere. However, suitable breeding conditions for a number of Arctic shorebirds, including knots, are predicted to shift and decline in coming decades due to climate change. An understanding of species–habitat relationships will be crucial for present and future conservation efforts.

“It took many person-hours over many years of intensive field surveys to find the several dozen occupied Red Knot nests that we located and documented. The area we aerially searched for radio-tagged birds spanned over 1700 km in length, the same distance as from Georgia to Maine,” says Niles.

Lathrop adds, “Using the power of satellite remote sensing, data mining analysis, and geospatial modeling, we were able to extrapolate from the field and radio-telemetry surveys to map potential nesting habitat for these birds across wide expanses of the Canadian Arctic. These same tools and techniques could be applied to advance our knowledge about other Arctic-nesting shorebirds.”

“Implementing effective conservation actions for long-distance migrant birds often involves the systematic elimination of insignificant factors to identify important biotic and abiotic contributors to population dynamics,” according to Brad Andres, National Coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Shorebird Conservation Plan, who was not involved in the study. “For the first time, Lathrop and his colleagues have described environmental conditions conducive for nesting by rufa Red Knots and provide evidence that breeding ground habitats are likely not limiting the recovery of the population. Their work also furnishes a baseline to evaluate the ability of a changing Arctic climate to provide breeding habitat for this shorebird of high conservation concern.”

Mapping and modeling the breeding habitat of the Red Knot, Calidris canutus, at landscape and regional scales is available at

About the journal: The Condor: Ornithological Applications is a peer-reviewed, international journal of ornithology, published by the American Ornithological Society. For the past two years, The Condor has had the number one impact factor among 27 ornithology journals.

AUTHOR BLOG: Newly discovered crossbill species numbers few

Craig W. Benkman

Linked paper: Habitat associations and abundance of a range-restricted specialist, the Cassia Crossbill (Loxia sinesciuris) by N.J. Behl and C.W. Benkman, The Condor: Ornithological Applications 120:3, August 2018.


A female Cassia Crossbill.

Based on the size and structure of the lodgepole pine cones and the abundance of crossbills in the South Hills and Albion Mountains, Idaho, that I observed on the way to a joint AOU and COS meeting in Boise in 1996, I told several colleagues at the meeting that I might have discovered a new form of crossbill. Although they were skeptical, over the years my students and I have found that this crossbill is engaged in a coevolutionary arms race with the pine, favoring an increase in seed defenses directed at the crossbills. This has caused the crossbill to diverge and speciate into what we now call the Cassia Crossbill (Loxia sinesciuris).

Restricted to the lodgepole pine atop two small ranges on the northeast edge of the Great Basin Desert, this bird was of clear conservation concern, especially given the forecasts of lodgepole pine disappearing from the region late in this century. This became all the more troubling as we watched the Cassia Crossbill population plummet by over 80% between 2003 and 2011. The decline was related to an increase in hot summer days (>32°C or 90°F; 8 days in 2003, 3 in 2005, 4 in 2006, and 4 in 2007) that caused many of the normally closed cones of lodgepole pine to open and shed their seeds, much like they would if there was a stand-replacing fire. Such seeds are lost to Cassia Crossbills, which rely on seeds in the older, closed cones as they weather and gradually become available throughout the year. Fortunately, hot summer days have been few since 2007, allowing the crossbill population to rebound. However, given its restricted range, apparent small population size, and vulnerability to higher temperatures, we needed an estimate of their global population size and habitat preferences to inform and guide us. Nate Behl did just that work for his master’s thesis, and it appears in the article “Habitat associations and abundance of a range-restricted specialist, the Cassia Crossbill (Loxia sinesciuris)” in The Condor: Ornithological Applications.

Cassia Crossbills occupy about 70 km2 of lodgepole pine forest and number only ~5,800 birds. Thus, at the population nadir in 2011 there were probably about 1,500 Cassia Crossbills. That is worrisome, especially given the forecasts for more extreme temperatures later in this century. Nate also found that Cassia Crossbills occur more commonly in larger, mature stands of lodgepole pine on the cooler north-facing slopes where large numbers of seeds can accumulate in closed cones. This makes sense, but the outlook for the continued accumulation of seeds in closed cones in the canopy is bleak. More hot summer days are projected, along with increasing fire frequency, preventing pine from reaching the ages most productive for the Cassia Crossbill.

Agricultural & Urban Habitat Drive Long-Term Bird Population Changes

CONDOR-17-153_CHSP_M. K. Rubey

Chipping Sparrows have expanded their distribution in Illinois by taking advantage of urban habitats. Photo credit: M.K. Rubey

Land use changes are a major driver of species declines, but in addition to the habitat to which they’re best adapted, many bird species use “alternative” habitats such as urban and agricultural land. A new study from The Condor: Ornithological Applications documents a century of land use change in Illinois and shows that species’ long-term fate can depend on the availability and suitability of these alternative habitats.

Between 1906 and 1909, a pair of ornithologists crisscrossed the state of Illinois, creating a unique record of its avian inhabitants across grassland, forest, urban, and agricultural habitats. The University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign’s Michael Ward and his colleagues recreated this survey as closely as possible between 2006 and 2008 and used the data to create mathematical models of bird occupancy, assessing how things had changed over the course of the twentieth century. They found that birds’ use of alternative habitats had changed more than their use of primary habitats: the 40 species in their analysis that expanded their occupancy did so by making more use of urban habitats, while the 26 that decreased did so because they were making less use of agricultural habitats. Urban habitats have become more bird-friendly in the past century as vegetation has matured and bird feeding has become more popular. Agriculture, on the other hand, has seen a shift from small, diversified farms to vast corn and soybean monocultures managed with heavy herbicide and pesticide use.

“We need to understand how species use and respond to changes in not only their primary habitat, but also habitats that they only use occasionally. Species that can take advantage of alternate habitats can expand their populations,” says Ward. “Understanding which species can or can’t take advantage of these alternative habitats will allow us to better predict which species need conservation efforts. Urban habitats are the habitats in which many species have been increasing, and the general public, by providing small bits of habitat in their backyards, have the opportunity to help a range of species.” Species that have been declining, on the other hand, may rebound if agricultural practices change to become more wildlife-friendly.

“When trying to explain changes in population size and distribution, biologists often look first to changes in the habitats that are most closely associated with a species. This study demonstrates that these ‘primary habitats,’ as termed by the authors, do not necessarily drive population changes,” adds the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Amanda Rodewald, an expert on birds’ response to land use who was not involved in the study. “Rather, the extent to which a species uses novel or alternative habitats such as urban areas might better explain patterns. One key implication for conservation is that tracking species within alternative habitats may help biologists to understand, anticipate, and potentially mitigate population changes.”

Changes in bird distributions in Illinois, USA, over the 20th century were driven by use of alternative rather than primary habitats is available at

About the journal: The Condor: Ornithological Applications is a peer-reviewed, international journal of ornithology, published by the American Ornithological Society. For the past two years, The Condor has had the number one impact factor among 27 ornithology journals.

AUTHOR BLOG: Ancient Fossil Bones of a Recently Extinct Cormorant

Junya Watanabe

Linked paper: Pleistocene fossils from Japan show that the recently extinct Spectacled Cormorant (Phalacrocorax perspicillatus) was a relict by J. Watanabe, H. Matsuoka, and Y. Hasegawa, The Auk: Ornithological Advances 135:4, October 2018.

The new and heretofore unfigured species of the birds of North America

Live reconstruction of the Spectacled Cormorant from study skins. Artwork by Joseph Wolf, from Elliott (1869), The New and Heretofore Unfigured Species of the Birds of North America, Volume 2.

Numerous extinction events have taken place in geologically recent time, caused to varying degrees by human activity. Although relatively much is known about how humans have given “final blows” to animal species in recent history, little is known about the long-term biogeographic and evolutionary history of extinct animals. This is where archaeological and fossil records play crucial roles. One of the most (in)famous examples of historic extinctions is the case of the Great Auk, which was once widespread in the North Atlantic Ocean but was driven to extinction in the mid-19th century due to hunting by humans. There is one potential parallel, though less widely known, in the North Pacific Ocean; a large seabird species called Spectacled Cormorant (Phalacrocorax perspicillatus) was driven to extinction almost contemporaneously. This species was first discovered in the 18th century on Bering Island, part of the Commander Islands, by German explorer Georg Steller, who became the only naturalist to observe the birds in life. Following the colonization of the island by humans in the early 19th century, this species was hunted by humans, and it was driven to extinction in the 1850s. As there has been no record of the species outside Bering Island, it is considered to have been restricted to the island throughout its existence. Our new study in The Auk: Ornithological Advances, however, reports the first definitive record of the cormorant species outside Bering Island, demonstrating that the species was in fact not restricted to the island in the past.

Through our study of Japanese fossil birds, my colleagues and I identified 13 fossil bones of the Spectacled Cormorant from upper Pleistocene deposits (dated ~120,000 years ago) in Japan. The fossil bones were recovered from Shiriya, northeastern Japan, through excavations led by my co-author Yoshikazu Hasegawa of the Gunma Museum of Natural History. Through detailed examination of the bird fossils from the site, it became evident that a cormorant species much larger than any of the four native cormorant species in present-day Japan was represented in the material. At first, we suspected the presence of a new species, but this turned out not to be the case. Through a literature survey, I came across a 19th-century paper by American ornithologists Leonhard Stejneger and Frederic Lucas that described bones of the Spectacled Cormorant collected on Bering Island. The dimensions and illustrations given in the paper were strikingly similar to the Japanese fossils. I decided to visit the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., where the bones described by Stejneger and Lucas are stored. After careful examination, the Japanese fossils turned out to agree in every detail with bones of the Spectacled Cormorant from Bering Island, rather than with any other species compared, to the extent that I was convinced that the Japanese fossils belong to the same species as the Bering Island bones.

The occurrence of the Spectacled Cormorant from Japan is the first definitive record of this species outside Bering Island and indicates that the species underwent a drastic range contraction or shift since the Pleistocene. In other words, the population of this species on Bering Island discovered by Steller was in fact a relict, with most of the species’ past distribution already lost. Changes in oceanographic conditions might be responsible for the local disappearance of the species in Japan; paleoclimate studies have shown that the oceanic productivity around Shiriya dropped drastically in the Last Glacial Maximum (~20,000 years ago), which would have seriously affected the population of the species. Although it might be possible that hunting of that species by humans took place in prehistoric Japan, no archaeological evidence for that is known so far. The entire picture of the recent extinction event of the Spectacled Cormorant might be more complex than previously thought, as is becoming evident for some other extinct seabirds in other parts of the world.

Further reading

Fuller, E. (2001). Extinct Birds, revised edition. Cornell University Press, New York, NY.

Hume, J. P. (2017). Extinct Birds, 2nd edn. Bloomsbury Natural History, London.