Climate change is causing birds to shrink, study says

Bye-bye birdie Study finds North American birds getting smaller Collection of the birds at the Field Museum in Chicago

Bye-bye birdie Study finds North American birds getting smaller Collection of the birds at the Field Museum in Chicago

And Chicago, with its skyscrapers and location on a major migration path, is perhaps the biggest killer.

Every day in the spring and fall since 1978, scientists and volunteers at Chicago's Field Museum have gotten up as early as 3:30 in the morning to collect fallen birds that have crashed into nearby buildings' windows.

Given the well-established link, many scientists had predicted in recent years that global warming would affect the size of many animals. Numerous birds hit the hulking glass McCormick Place, North America's largest convention center. The same year, another study found salamanders had shrunk rapidly in response to climate change.

"We had good reason to expect that increasing temperatures would lead to reductions in body size, based on previous studies", said Brian Weeks, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability and lead author of the study that published Wednesday in the journal Ecology Letters.

"But we see them consistently across so many species, across male and female, across ages and all these things that can introduce variability", said Benjamin Winger, a University of MI evolutionary biologist who was the senior scientist on the project. "I was incredibly surprised that all of these species are responding in such similar ways", he added in a press statement.

Birds across species have slowly been shrinking, The Washington Post reports.

The length of the tarsus leg bone, a key indicator of overall body size, declined 2.4% across all 52 species during those decades.

"There is nothing particularly hard about making the actual measurements - there is a special ruler for measuring wings and we use a digital caliper for bill length and tarsus length and a digital scale for weight", Williard said. Meanwhile, the birds' wingspans increased by 1.3%.

Within animal species individuals tend to be smaller in warmer parts of their range because they conserve less heat.

Long-distance bird migration is one of the most impressive feats in the animal kingdom.

"Periods of rapid warming are followed really closely by periods of decline in body size, and vice versa", Weeks says.

"Being able to show that kind of detail in a morphological study is unique to our paper, as far as I know, and it's entirely due to the quality of the dataset that David Willard generated".

The possibility of body size reduction in response to present-day global warming has been suggested for decades although evidence supporting the idea remains mixed. "The results of this study highlight how essential long-term data sets are for identifying and analyzing trends caused by changes in our environment", says Willard, a collections manager emeritus at the Field Museum and one of the authors of a new study in Ecology Letters presenting these findings, along with lead author Brian Weeks and senior author Ben Winger from the University of MI.

Willard began collecting the dead birds after someone casually mentioned they were hitting windows, including at McCormick Place, North America's largest convention center, which is just a mile away from the Field Museum. Willard said he headed down there thinking, "Why let them go to waste when they could be specimens in a museum?"

The thousands of sparrows, warblers, thrushes and other birds analyzed in the new study were all killed when they collided with high-rise buildings in Chicago between 1978 and 2016, the scientists said.

The authors say the study is the largest of its kind and that the findings are important to understanding how animals will adapt to climate change.

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