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NEW WILMINGTON, Pa. –Tweetspeak took part in the annual Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC) on Saturday, February 18, 2017. The sun was bright in the sky that morning and temperatures were around sixty degrees. Not only did the unusual February weather make for an enjoyable morning at Westminster College, but it also brought out the birds of spring.

The group identified about twenty different species of birds that day altogether. It was much easier to see birds against a blue sky than it had been in the past when Tweetspeak went birding on cloudy, overcast days. The bright, red plumage of multiple Northern Cardinals could be easily seen among the trees as well as male and female Eastern Bluebirds that were resting on top of nesting boxes.

Warm weather revealed birds that are actually summer migrants in Lawrence County. These birds are referred to as “summer” migrants, but the name is misleading because they arrive in late winter/early spring. A Red-winged Blackbird was spotted resting on the top of a telephone pole by Lake Brittain during Tweetspeak’s GBBC adventure. The arrival of this bird was a couple days earlier than usual, according to Dr. Kerri Duerr, so it was an unexpected sighting for the group.

This winter has had remarkable fluctuations in temperatures. One has to wonder if the unusual winter weather in the North-eastern U.S. affects everyday patterns in wildlife behavior. Black-capped Chickadees, Northern Cardinals and many others could be heard performing their mating calls during the GBBC since it was such a warm day. We asked Duerr if early breeding is a possibility when temperatures are so high in the winter. Though the weather may seem like it’d be “confusing” the birds, Duerr explains that all birds are on an internal “clock” or “compass” that controls the timing of migration, breeding, molting, and more. Birds’ life patterns usually remain independent of weather and other natural factors, but is it possible that extreme climate change could “recalibrate” their clocks? According to Arizona State University’s Ask a Biologist webpage, birds follows cues like the weather and length of day to time their mating season. If spring arrives earlier, then food resources arrive earlier, so over time, summer migrants will keep arriving at breeding grounds sooner each year. If they lay their eggs early, and cold, winter weather returns before the normal nesting season, populations could be in danger of rapid decline.

This is just a small part of how drastic climate change affects birds and other wildlife. Data collected from the GBBC gives researchers more insight into the behaviors and migrations patterns of birds that can answer these types of questions. With the help of citizen scientists, researchers can use the data from the GBBC to implement conservation efforts towards saving bird populations from the impact of climate change.

Written by Katie Nicholson and Anna Daniels

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