Some songbirds now migrate east to west. Climate change may play a role

A dramatic shift in some Richard’s pipits’ winter plans might be linked to a warming Europe

image of a Richard’s pipit amid grass

A Richard’s pipit (Anthus richardi) stands in grass in Fréjus, France. Larger numbers of the songbirds have been wintering in southern Europe in recent decades, researchers say.

Gaëtan Jouvenez

As the chill of autumn encroaches on Siberia’s grasslands, Richard’s pipits usually begin their southward trek to warmer latitudes. But a growing number of the slender, larklike songbirds seem to be heading west instead, possibly establishing a new migratory route for the species. 

This would be the first new route known to emerge on an east-west axis in a long-distance migratory bird, researchers report October 22 in Current Biology. The finding could have implications for how scientists understand the evolution of bird migration routes over time and how the animals adapt to a shifting climate. 

Richard’s pipits (Anthus richardi) typically breed in Siberia during the summer and travel south for the winter to southern Asia. Occasionally, “vagrant” birds get lost and show up far from this range, including in Europe. But as a Ph.D. student at the Université Grenoble Alpes in France, evolutionary biologist Paul Dufour noticed, along with colleagues, that described sightings and photo records of the pipits wintering in southern France had increased from a handful of birds annually in the 1980s and 1990s to many dozens in recent years. 

So, Dufour, now at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, and his team started monitoring the pipits in France and Spain to see where the birds were coming from, and if the birds were visiting Europe on purpose or just getting lost.

The researchers captured seven pipits in France during the winter of 2019–2020, tagging them with a sensor that estimates the birds’ geographic positions based on light levels and length of day. The team then released the birds. The next winter, the team successfully recaptured three of them. Those sensors showed that the birds had all flown back to the same part of southwestern Siberia for the summer before returning to France.

The researchers also examined images in citizen-science databases of 331 Richard’s pipits that were photographed in Europe and North Africa, categorizing the birds by apparent age. Among songbirds, Dufour says, vagrants are always young birds. Songbirds tend to follow a route based on instincts written into their DNA, replicating the trip their ancestors took. But storms or mutations that create faulty wayfinding abilities can send young songbirds off target.

image of a Richard’s pipit perched on grass in Spain
Richard’s pipits normally spend the winter in southern Asia, but a new migration route seems to be bringing them to European places like Galicia, Spain, where this pipit was photographed.Daniel Lopez-Velasco

Wherever it arrives, the songbird’s first migration creates a mental map for every migration after, so any adult birds in Europe have made the trip more than once. Since more than half of the birds in southern Europe and nearby northwestern Africa documented in the winter were adults, Dufour and his colleagues think that many of these pipits are seasonal migrants. 

Contemporary shifts in migration routes are more common in species that travel via the cues of a traveling group, like geese or cranes. Songbirds usually migrate alone, following their instinctual route when young, Dufour says, so changes to migration patterns are rarer.

What’s more, east-west migration is unusual in birds. Most species that travel this way are ones that migrate short distances within the tropics, says Jessie Williamson, an ornithologist at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque who was not involved with the research. “It’s exciting that an understudied migratory behavior like east-west migration is in the spotlight,” she says.

If the pipits’ European trek is in fact now an established route, it’s possible that the detour was facilitated by climate change, which may also be meddling with birds’ migrations in other ways (SN: 12/17/19). Dufour and his team used computer models that estimate climate suitability for the pipits in Europe based on variables like temperature and precipitation. The researchers compared two periods — 1961 to 1990 and 1990 to 2018 — and found that warmer temperatures in the latter period have made most parts of southern Europe a better wintering location for the birds than they were before.

The selection of European wintering grounds may also involve the deterioration of ancestral, southern Asian sites, but the researchers haven’t investigated that yet. Climate change could be affecting that too, Dufour says. But “we suspect that habitat modification in Southeast Asia — increasing urbanization, less open areas — may also be part of the equation.”

Ginny Chan, an ecologist at the Swiss Ornithological Institute in Sempach who was not involved with the research, says that the types of environmental changes that could be hurting bird populations “are happening very quickly in the traditional wintering range [for Richard’s pipits] in South and East Asia.” In India, the Richard’s pipit population has declined by more than 90 percent over the last couple of decades, Chan says.

Other Siberian bird species that typically migrate south but have recently shown up in Europe in growing numbers, like the yellow-browed warbler and Siberian chiffchaff, may also be making their own westward routes, Dufour suspects.

If other Siberian songbird species are also establishing new western migration routes, this could mean that migratory songbirds are more flexible travelers than scientists previously thought, Dufour says.

That could have hopeful implications for some birds as species worldwide deal with a changing climate. But the new research, he adds, shouldn’t overshadow other studies of migratory birds — like barnacle geese and the European pied flycatcher — which show that some of these species are not as able to cope with climate change.

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