Associate Professor University of Wisconsin-Madison, United States
Background/Question/Methods Extreme weather events are increasing in frequency and intensity as a result of modern climate change. During winter, species may be especially vulnerable to extreme weather as they are surviving on scarce resources and living at the edge of their thermal limits. We compiled data from eBird, a global citizen science initiative, to examine how 41 eastern North American birds shifted their occurrence and abundance patterns immediately following two recent extreme weather events each affecting > 2 million km2, the intrusion of a polar vortex and a winter heat wave. eBird data is continuously collected at high spatiotemporal resolution across large spatial extents, allowing us to compare species’ responses immediately before and after these extreme events with trends in other winters across geographic scales.
Results/Conclusions Overall, we found that birds responded differently to each extreme weather event. Bird occurrence rates did not change following the polar vortex, but where species occurred, population density was temporarily reduced, suggesting reductions in number of individuals driven by decreases in behavioral activity or temporary movement out of the area. However, birds demonstrated widespread increases in occurrence and increases in density and number of individuals where they occurred for at least 20 days after the heat wave, hinting at longer-term range changes. Smaller-bodied, warm-adapted passerines tended to be most sensitive to extreme weather and responded most negatively to the polar vortex and most positively to the heat wave, while larger-bodied, cold-adapted waterbirds expressed only mild responses to either event. Thus, certain species may be exceptionally sensitive to extreme weather events while others are less sensitive. As climate change progresses and climatic variability increases, researchers and managers must better quantify the broad-scale sensitivity of different species to multiple types of extreme weather events.