Forecasting the Effects of Climate Change on Spruce-fir Birds

Research Issue

Bicknell's ThrushBirds are important in their own right, but they can also serve as indicator species, giving a general idea of trends in habitats and the environment and providing researchers with important information about the overall health of ecosystems. The White Mountain National Forest encompasses some of the highest quality montane spruce-fir forest in the northeast, which comprises the core habitat for the rare and declining Bicknell’s thrush.  Researchers at the White Mountain National Forest have been researching three indicator species — Bicknell’s thrush, yellowbellied fly catcher, and the magnolia warbler — in an effort to forecast the effects of climate change on spruce-fir birds.

Our Research

magnolia warblerNorthern Research Station scientists were interested in the trends of these indicator species because of potential threats to the high-elevation spruce-fir forests they inhabit. Analyses of long-term data showed that all three indicator species declined from 1992-2003. Further analyses showed many bird species have shifted upslope during this period, although higher elevation spruce-fir species appear to be shifting downslope. This is concerning because these species experience lower reproductive success at these lower elevation sites.

vFinally, although birds could be tracking shifts in suitable temperatures, they could alternatively be tracking changes in habitat, which shifts far more slowly. Analyses of field measurements of temperature and habitat at locations where birds were found showed many birds are responding not directly to changing temperatures, but rather to changes in vegetation stemming from changing climatic conditions.

Expected Outcomes

These findings have highlighted the potential vulnerability of montane spruce-fir birds and have provided information needed by land managers to prioritize sites for conservation and to more accurately predict long-term changes in their populations.

Research Results

Duclos, Timothy R.; DeLuca, William V.; King, David I. 2019. Direct and indirect effects of climate on bird abundance along elevation gradients in the Northern Appalachian mountains. Diversity and Distributions. 26: 14 p. https://doi.org/10.1111/ddi.12968.

DeLuca, William V.; King, David I. 2016. Montane birds shift downslope despite recent warming in the northern Appalachian Mountains. Journal of Ornithology. 158: 493-505.

Ralston, Joel; King, David I.; DeLuca, William V.; Niemi, Gerald J.; Glennon, Michale J.; Scarl, Judith C.; Lambert, J. Daniel. 2015. Analysis of combined data sets yields trend estimates for vulnerable spruce-fir birds in northern United States. Biological Conservation. 187: 270-278.

King, D.I., J D. Lambert, J. P. Buonaccorsi and L. S. Prout. 2008. Avian Population Trends in the Vulnerable Montane Forests of the Northern Appalachians, USA Biodiversity and Conservation 17:2691–2700.

Research Participants

Principal Investigator

  • Dave King, US Forest Service - Northern Research Station, Research Wildlife Biologist

Research Partners

  • Last modified: March 10, 2020