In the News: What Chickadees Can Tell Us About Climate Change

(Originally published in the Philadelphia Inquirer)
By Sandy Bauers, Inquirer Staff Writer

Posted: March 19, 2014

About 15 years ago, Villanova University biology professor Robert Curry was looking for a Chickadeeproject that would allow his students to investigate something interesting without much travel.

He found it in a cheeky little bird with a black cap, familiar to anyone with a backyard feeder: the chickadee.

His idea was to catch a lot of birds (with special nets), band them to identify individuals, and keep track of all they did – who was nesting with whom and where, how many offspring they had, where the young went when they set out on their own.

Little did Curry know how quickly this creature, weighing less than two quarters, would provide clear evidence of birds moving northward – at quite a clip – in association with climate change.

Curry focused on two species: the Carolina chickadee and its more northerly relative, the black-capped chickadee. They look similar and are closely related, but genetic research indicates the two have been distinct for 2.5 million years.

The birds were good candidates for his project, since they don’t migrate seasonally. At the time, Carolina chickadees existed only in the southern half of the Eastern United States, west into Texas. Black-capped chickadees inhabited northern North America, up into Canada and all the way across to Alaska.

The two ranges overlapped in a ribbon of habitat about 21 miles wide. Part of it crossed Southeastern Pennsylvania.

Within that swath, the Carolinas and the blackcaps interbred, producing hybrids. One of the zone’s telltale signs: Hybrid chicks were less likely to hatch and survive.

Curry wanted his students to pin down those boundaries. They initially focused on three main areas: a large wetlands in East Nantmeal, Chester County; Nolde Forest, near Reading; and Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, farther north in Berks County.

They cut sewer pipe into short lengths, crafted the pieces to look like dead trees, and fashioned a cavity and entrance in the top.

Chickadees normally nest in dead trees, Curry said, “but if you have to find their nest out there in the woods in some random tree, you can waste an awful lot of time.”

The chickadees accepted the pipes. Ultimately, Curry and his students put out 450 fake nests.

As they captured birds, they also took blood samples, in part to determine which were hybrids or even backcrosses – a bird whose parents were a hybrid and a nonhybrid.

When the project began in 1998, the Chester County population was all Carolinas. Nolde Forest had a mix of Carolinas and hybrids. At Hawk Mountain, blackcaps dominated.

But as the research continued over the years, that changed. Today, almost half of Hawk Mountain’s chickadees are hybrids. And if there’s a chickadee at your feeder in Southeastern Pennsylvania or South Jersey – unless it’s an “irruption,” an unusual year in which blackcaps move southward – the bird is likely a Carolina.

Curry’s collaborators in the project, Cornell University and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in New York, analyzed nearly 200 blood samples the students collected. The scientists also collated citizen bird sightings reported to online database eBird, and studied temperature records.

One climate-change variable shifting in this region has been the average minimum temperature in winter, this year’s deep freeze notwithstanding.

The dividing line between the two chickadee species turned out to be about 17 degrees. In other words, Carolinas won’t live where it’s colder; blackcaps will.

The Cornell researchers realized that the warming temperatures and the Carolina chickadees were moving north in sync – at an average of 0.7 miles a year.

The pace was so fast that in 2006, Curry added another site, Tuscarora State Forest in Schuylkill County, to keep ahead of the Carolinas’ push north.

“A lot of the time, climate change doesn’t really seem tangible,” said Scott Taylor of the Cornell Lab, the lead author on the group’s recent paper in the journal Current Biology. “But here are these common little backyard birds we all grew up with, and we’re seeing them moving northward on relatively short timescales.”

Curry was struck by “how strong the climate signal was,” he said. “I didn’t think we’d be able to show it as quickly and clearly as we did.”

Keith Russell, outreach coordinator for Pennsylvania Audubon, said that Audubon research also has shown how winter distributions of many North American birds were shifting and that the chickadee research was another important piece of evidence.

If birds are moving north, other things likely are as well, from parasites to diseases and organisms that affect agriculture.

“There are probably endless ways in which small changes in climate can change the natural world [and] impact humans significantly,” Russell said.

What Curry and his colleagues documented has already been noted anecdotally by birders.

Russell has researched historic local bird records for a book project, and they show a similar shift.

In the mid-1800s, Carolina chickadees were virtually unknown in Philadelphia, and blackcaps showed up only in winter. In the 1940s, Carolinas began to breed in small numbers. In 1965, there was a population explosion, “and thereafter, the Carolina chickadee was a common resident species,” he said, and blackcaps had become rare winter visitors.

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Upcoming Event: Great Backyard Bird Count (2/1/2014)

Great Backyard Bird Count @ Radnor Memorial Library

Press release 


Wayne, PA – Saturday, February 1, Steven Saffier of Audubon Pennsylvania will present about the value of the Great Backyard Bird Count, which begins February 14 and runs through the 17th.  The Great Backyard Bird Count is a program of Citizen Science.  This is the 16th year for this successful program, which submits valuable information to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Each year over the four-day President’s Day weekend, people of all ages and bird watching experience are encouraged to look outside at their yard and count the birds they see.  Checklists are then entered into an online database where participants can also find more information about birds.  The website also offers kids’ activities and Top 10 lists from prior years.  The web tools are intended to introduce backyard birdwatching as a fun and engaging activity that truly contributes conservation science to Audubon and its partners.

The GBBC takes place February 14-17, 2014 and is free and open to everyone.  Participants are asked to spend a least fifteen minutes on each of the four days to count birds in backyards, schoolyards or parks.

Pennsylvania is annually among the top states in number of contributed checklists and seeks to dethrone winning states such as New York and Florida.

Steven will highlight fifteen of the most common backyard birds and talk about the value of the GBBC.  Additionally he will discuss the basics of bird watching, how to identify birds using behavior, field marks, etc.  Also there will be information about bird seed and feeders.

The program is February 1, 2014 (snow date:  February 8th)  at the Radnor Memorial Library, Wayne, PA  from 10:00 A.M.  For more information, contact:

CONTACT: Steven Saffier,Director of Audubon At Home, Audubon, Pennsylvania

Cell: 267.467.3777  Phone: 610.666.5593 x112