Differential changes in the onset of spring across US National wildlife refuges and North American migratory bird flyways

Eric K. Waller, Theresa M. Crimmins, Jessica J. Walker, Erin E. Posthumus, Jake F. Weltzin

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

8 Scopus citations


Warming temperatures associated with climate change can have indirect effects on migratory birds that rely on seasonally available food resources and habitats that vary across spatial and temporal scales. We used two heat-based indices of spring onset, the First Leaf Index (FLI) and the First Bloom Index (FBI), as proxies of habitat change for the period 1901 to 2012 at three spatial scales: the US National Wildlife Refuge System; the four major bird migratory flyways in North America; and the seasonal ranges (i.e., breeding and non-breeding grounds) of two migratory bird species, Blue-winged Warbler (Vermivora cyanoptera) and Whooping Crane (Grus americana). Our results show that relative to the historical range of variability, the onset of spring is now earlier in 76% of all wildlife refuges and extremely early (i.e., exceeding 95% of historical conditions) in 49% of refuges. In all flyways but the Pacific, the rate of spring advance is generally greater at higher latitudes than at lower latitudes. This differential rate of advance in spring onset is most pronounced in the Atlantic flyway, presumably because of a “warming hole” in the southeastern US. Both FLI and FBI have advanced markedly in the breeding ranges–but not the non-breeding ranges–of the two selected bird species, albeit with considerable intra-range variation. Differences among species in terms of migratory patterns and the location and extent of seasonal habitats, as well as shifts in habitat conditions over time, may complicate predictions of the vulnerability of migratory birds to climate change effects. This study provides insight into how differential shifts in the phenology of disparate but linked habitats could inform local- to landscape-scale management strategies for the conservation of migratory bird populations.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere0202495
JournalPloS one
Issue number9
StatePublished - Sep 2018

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)
  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all)
  • General


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