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Extreme Weather—and Birds

Claire Peaslee and Nat Seavy, PhD

Winter-storm waves strike the California coast. Photo by Ron LeValley.
How about this weather?!?

A constant topic of conversation, yes—and for good reason. Weather is a basic condition for all life, even for members of human societies thought to be well sheltered from the elements. This winter, storms spawned by El Niño are compounding problems for people in California due to wildfire and multi-year drought.

Organisms like birds survive the weather with fine-tuned adaptations to their customary climate (climate being the average of weather conditions over long periods of time). These adaptations include behaviors, such as choosing protected roost sites that buffer them from cold temperatures, or impressive physiological feats enabling them to conserve energy. Some hummingbirds, for example, can lower their body temperatures during frigid nights, saving enough energy to survive until the sun warms the day.

Weather extremes—sudden spikes or steeply veering trends—can pose big challenges for birds, and this Observer is full of examples. PRBO's research has documented bird responses to extremes ranging from heat waves and unseasonable rainstorms to droughts and even changes in Antarctic sea ice. Our studies often draw upon weather data that spans more than 40 years, collected by PRBO at our Palomarin and Farallon Island field stations.

Weather extremes are becoming more extreme—more frequent, more intense, and longer-lasting. Earth's climate is changing at a magnitude greater than the capacity of many wildlife populations to adapt. With natural systems and human lives increasingly vulnerable to storms, heat, drought, floods, and anomalies in ocean temperature and currents, there is good reason to study birds as barometers of change. The correlation of weather data and bird data, central to PRBO's long-term research, is of vital interest for conservation and for human well-being.