It all started with a feather.
Or, to be more accurate, about 180,000 feathers. The University of California-Los Angeles’ Thomas Smith has been collecting feathers from migratory birds across North America for 25 years, and now, he and his team at UCLA’s Center for Tropical Research are using these feathers to find out exactly where birds are going when they migrate. That information, Smith hopes, will help researchers find out how birds are adapting to — or suffering from — climate change and other environmental impacts.
The undertaking is called the Bird Genoscape Project, and its goal is to make detailed, population-specific migration maps for birds, starting with six species — the wilson’s warbler, the swainson’s thrush, the yellow warbler, and three more that have yet to be decided. Smith told ThinkProgress that, while scientists know the general migration routes of most bird species, there isn’t yet enough data on the specifics — where individual birds and populations of birds are going once they reach their destinations. Knowing this data will help researchers compare current bird migration routes to basic routes discovered by researchers in the 1990s, and will also help scientists figure out why some populations of birds are having a harder time adapting to environmental changes than others. It will also provide an idea of what habitats need to be conserved in order to help give those birds a better chance of survival.
“We know that over half of migratory bird species are declining, but we can’t link specific wintering and breeding populations to understand what the causes are,” Smith said. “This is going to be a fantastic tool to get ahead of the curve and find out what’s causing declines.”
That’s where the feather collections come in. The feathers — usually one or two tail feathers, the extraction of which doesn’t harm the birds’ chance of survival — are collected from bird-banding station throughout breeding grounds across North America and wintering grounds in Mexico and Central America. The feathers are then analyzed — using approaches similar to those used in the Human Genome Project — for certain genetic markers that can signal that a bird is part of a specific population. With that information, researchers can create a migratory map of individual populations of a species, and can find out which populations aren’t doing as well as others. They can then try to figure out why those populations are in decline.
Smith used the example of the wilson’s warbler, a bird that already had its migratory route mapped out by a UCLA study last August. Populations of wilson’s warbler that winter in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains and winter on the west coast of Mexico have been in decline, he said.
“What’s been happening in the Sierras; what’s been happening in west coast of Mexico?” he said. Researchers can go to these places, now that they can pinpoint where they are, to try to figure that out. “It gives us a great tool toward understanding what the problems might be and where.”
CREDIT: Kristen Ruegg et al/Molecular ecology
The project got a $600,000 grant from First Solar — a donation that Smith said was key to getting it off the ground. Though ramping up solar development will ultimately bring down emissions in the U.S. — a way of mitigating climate change that will help birds and other creatures struggling to adapt to a warming world — large, concentrated solar power arrays can pose major threats to birds, killing them as they fly over concentrated beams of sunlight. First Solar doesn’t produce concentrated solar power arrays, but knowing specifically where birds fly when they migrate can help other solar companies site these projects in a way that avoids key regions for bird flyover.
Birds have emerged as a visible example of the impact climate change is already having on the environment. A report from the Audubon Society last fall found that nearly half of North American bird species are threatened by climate change. Sea birds, which face threats from climate change, ocean acidification, overfishing, and pollution, have seen their numbers fall by 70 percent in the last 60 years, according to a recent study. And numerous other studies have warned about climate change’s impacts on birds and other creatures.
“We need to get our head around how we’re going to mitigate these effects,” Smith said. “What our study can do is better target populations in trouble. Once we see a population in decline, we can visit that population and see what we can do to mitigate changes” — mitigation efforts that might include protecting lands higher in elevation so that birds have cooler places to go as the climate warms.
After completing maps for the six birds under this project, Smith hopes the project can expand to include 50 or 100 species. Right now, it takes about a year to go from feather samples to a full migration map, but the process is getting faster.
The threats birds face from climate change are compelling for many people, Smith said. According to the Audubon report from last fall, birds like the Baltimore oriole and common loon, which have become iconic for certain regions and states, may move out of those regions entirely as the planet warms, according to the report. That resonates with a lot of people.
“Climate change is affecting all sorts of species, but I think people care about birds,” Smith said. “It’s a way to engage the public about the effects of climate change, because birds are so well recognized and appreciated. So I think that’s one way that birds can sort of draw attention to these issues.”