Changing Passerine Distributions

A Savannah Sparrow perched on a shrub.
A Savannah Sparrow.

NPS/Robert Bennetts

Rapidly shifting elevational distributions of passerine species parallel vegetation change in the subarctic


Despite predictions of poleward and upslope shifts in the distribution of breeding passerines under climate change, studies often report variable responses with some species shifting opposite of the expected direction and others showing range stability. While changes in climate could affect distribution directly, passerines show strong preferences for particular structural vegetation characteristics, suggesting that long‐term changes in vegetation may mediate a species' distributional response to climate, and consequently, may be responsible for the observed heterogeneity. We assessed changes in the elevational distribution and occupancy probability of 17 passerine species in Denali National Park, Alaska, from 1995 to 2013 across an elevational gradient containing multiple topographically defined ecotones (treeline and shrubline). An upward distributional shift was pervasive among shrub‐tundra species, corresponding with observed expansion of shrub cover at higher elevations. Forest‐associated passerines showed a weaker response as a group with some species showing range stability or retraction, while others exhibited modest expansions that were consistent with an advancing treeline ecotone. Denali's mean summer temperature increased significantly over the past century, but remained relatively stable over our study period, implying that longer term changes in climate indirectly influenced bird distribution through changes in woody vegetation. Further, heterogeneity in the response of forest‐associated species was consistent with a slower rate of forest development and expansion as compared with shrub colonization. Together, our results indicate that the elevational range dynamics of passerines may be related to species‐specific associations with different vegetation communities and variation across these vegetation communities in the timescale over which distributional change is occurring.

Mizel, J. D., J. H. Schmidt, C. L. Mcintyre, and C. A. Roland. 2016. Rapidly shifting elevational distributions of passerine species parallel vegetation change in the subarctic. Ecosphere 7(3):1-15.