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Springing forward: Migrating songbirds catch up with the start of spring in North America

November 16, 2023
  1. In temperate regions, the annual pattern of spring onset can be envisioned as a ‘green wave’ of emerging vegetation that moves across continents from low to high latitudes, signifying increasing food availability for consumers.
  2. Many herbivorous migrants ‘surf’ such resource waves, timing their movements to exploit peak vegetation resources in early spring. Although less well studied at the individual level, secondary consumers such as insectivorous songbirds can track vegetation phenology during migration as well.
  3. We hypothesized that four species of ground-foraging songbirds in eastern North America—two warblers and two thrushes—time their spring migrations to coincide with later phases of vegetation phenology, corresponding to increased arthropod prey, and predicted they would match their migration rate to the green wave but trail behind it rather than surfing its leading edge.
  4. We further hypothesized that the rate at which spring onset progresses across the continent influences bird migration rates, such that individuals adjust migration timing within North America to phenological conditions they experience en route.
  5. To test our hypotheses, we used a continent-wide automated radio telemetry network to track individual songbirds on spring migration between the U.S. Gulf Coast region and northern locations closer to their breeding grounds.
  6. We measured vegetation phenology using two metrics of spring onset, the spring index first leaf date and the normalized difference vegetation index (NDVI), then calculated the rate and timing of spring onset relative to bird detections.
  7. All individuals arrived in the southeastern United States well after local spring onset. Counter to our expectations, we found that songbirds exhibited a ‘catching up’ pattern: Individuals migrated faster than the green wave of spring onset, effectively closing in on the start of spring as they approached breeding areas.
  8. While surfing of resource waves is a well-documented migration strategy for herbivorous waterfowl and ungulates, individual songbirds in our study migrated faster than the green wave and increasingly caught up to its leading edge en route.
  9. Consequently, songbirds experience a range of vegetation phenophases while migrating through North America, suggesting flexibility in their capacity to exploit variable resources in spring.
Publication Year 2023
Title Springing forward: Migrating songbirds catch up with the start of spring in North America
DOI 10.1111/1365-2656.14025
Authors Claire E. Nemes, Peter P. Marra, Theodore J. Zenzal, Samantha A. Collins, Bryant C. Dossman, Alexander R. Gerson, Camila Gómez, Ana M. González, Mariamar Gutierrez Ramirez, Sarah A. Hamer, Joseph Marty, Phillip L. Vasseur, Emily B. Cohen
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Journal of Animal Ecology
Index ID 70250413
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Wetland and Aquatic Research Center