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Flying long haul and short: birds and climate change

May 11, 2010

We are listening out for the cuckoos, and one was heard not too far from SolarUK’s HQ-to-be near Battle, East Sussex – so they are still here, for this summer at any rate.

If there has been a decline in cuckoo numbers, at least there’s a good news story in the form of The Guardian’s report last month that the black redstart has been tempted back to Sheffield thanks to the university and city council-backed cluster of green roofs.

We saw in an earlier blog how a green roof and a solar panel are very compatible, the cooling effect of the roof helping the photovoltaics to work more effectively.  These roofs have an exciting role to play in soaking up rainwater and also encouraging wildlife.  The sparse vegetation favoured by black redstarts can be recreated on the tops of public buildings.

Looking at the bigger picture, The Independent, reporting from Linares, Spain, quoted an ornithologist who said that long-distance migrators are travelling shorter distances, with short-distance migrators showing a tendency to stay put.

Rising temperatures are the reason.  It means birds are having to adapt – much faster than they have had to do during the temperature fluctuations of previous eras.  Shortening wingspans are one result of this fast-track evolution.

Rather confusingly, reported last year that bird migrations are actually going to get longer.  A Durham University-led study found that from 2071 to 2100, nine of the seventeen species looked at (including the warblers who arrive in Northern Europe in spring to take advantage of the abundance of insects) are likely to have to migrate further, particularly if they are coming from south of the Sahara.

It is facile to blame every challenge faced by the natural world on human-induced climate change, but whatever is causing winters to be warmer we have to acknowledge that changes in bird behaviour have knock-on effects: the increase in numbers of one species in a given area could cause a decline in another species.

Considering the hazards involved in long-distance travel, staying in one place or not flying so far might be thought of as sensible self-preservation. Swallows heading south must sometimes temporarily turn back if the winds over the English Channel are too strong: then they must get across France, negotiate the tricky Pyrenees, risk guns and nets if they choose the Malta-route, and brave thunderstorms over the Congo before reaching southern Africa.  

As this is a solar energy website, we can finish by sharing with you a sun-related bird fact: sunbirds are flashy little hummingbird-like inhabitants of Africa, Asia and the South Pacific.  Unlike their unrelated New World fellow nectar feeders, they perch to feed rather than hover.

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