Magpies are struggling to adapt fast enough to climate emergency

24 Jul 2019

Image: © Erni/

The pace at which the climate emergency is developing is simply too fast for magpies and other birds to adapt, a new study has found.

We’ve become used to hearing about rare species across the world being pushed to the brink of extinction by the ongoing climate emergency, but new research suggests that even common creatures are now seriously under threat.

In a paper published to Nature Communications, an international team of 64 researchers – including University College of Cork’s Thomas Reed – revealed that while animals commonly respond to climate change, the pace at which it is developing leaves them unable to keep up. In some cases, the team added, their adapting mechanisms push them in wrong directions.

The research evaluated more than 10,000 scientific studies to analyse how many birds are adapting – such as shifting the time they breed – and whether these shifts can sustain a population in the long run.

Changes in reproduction patterns, along with hibernation and migration, are the most commonly observed responses to climate change. Changes in body size, body mass or other morphological traits have also been associated with the climate emergency, but this research showed no systematic pattern.

Pessimistic forecasts

The team extracted relevant information from the scientific literature to relate changes in climate over the years to possible changes in migratory patterns and morphological traits. Next, they evaluated whether observed trait changes were associated with higher survival or an increased number of offspring.

This revealed that in temperate regions, rising temperatures are associated with a major shift towards pushing the birds’ major biological events earlier than before.

While this suggests that these birds could stay in a warming habitat if they cope fast enough to a changing climate, senior author of the paper, Alexandre Courtiol of the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research, is not holding out hope.

“This is unlikely to be the case because even populations undergoing adaptive change do so at a pace that does not guarantee their persistence,” he said.

Even more worrisome, according to the team, is that the research included data from predominantly common and abundant species such as the great tit, the European pied flycatcher and the common magpie, which are known to cope with climate change relatively well.

Co-lead of the research, Stephanie Kramer-Schadt, said the team fears “that the forecasts of population persistence for such species of conservation concern will be even more pessimistic”.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic