Researchers worry Arctic climate change is taking a toll on snow buntings
“They appear to be really sensitive to climate change”
Across the Canadian Arctic, the arrival of tiny snow buntings, with their distinctive songs and plumage that often looks like toasted marshmallows, marks the start of spring.
But the numbers of these songbirds have decreased by 65 per cent over the past 40 years, down to about a breeding population of about seven million, and not as many head north, says snow bunting expert Oliver Love from the University of Windsor.
In the snow buntings’ winter homes, annual bird counts show that “unfortunately in every province in Canada they’re declining fairly rapidly,” Love said.
His research now aims to see whether climate change is responsible for lowering these numbers and how the snow buntings are coping.
“We want to try to understand if these birds are keeping pace with climate change,” Love said. “They appear to be really sensitive to climate change.”
Over-hunting isn’t an issue in the birds’ decline: while snow buntings used to be eaten in some parts of eastern Canada years ago, Inuit say they only harvested them in times of starvation.
This spring, some residents of Puvirnituq, along the Hudson Bay coast of Nunavik, worried when they didn’t see the return of snow buntings, known as amaulligaat there (snow buntings are also called qaulluqtaaq in Inuktitut, the white one; as well as, amautlik, “the one with a pouch,” referring to the black pattern on their backs; and ukiuqtaarjuk, “the little one belonging to the winter.”)
Love said he first got the idea of studying snow buntings on his way back from a summer spent on Mitivik Island near Coral Harbour researching common eiders, as little was known about the numbers of snow buntings.
Love said he was inspired to look into that after reading a story in Nunatsiaq News on the puzzling decline of snow buntings: “I have been studying them ever since,” he said.
This research focus meant lots of time spent in Mitivik, a tiny island about 400 metres by 800 metres, which has up to 25 pairs of buntings nesting densely among granite rocks. It’s a perfect place to study snow buntings, which generally don’t nest in such a large group.
In the beginning, Love and his fellow researchers started to document how many eggs snow buntings lay, how many chicks they raise, what kinds of patterns of feathers they have and what the various songs are like.
The researchers also attached tiny geo-locaters, like backpacks, to some snow buntings to tell them where the birds go during the winter.
“It turns out they have been spending the entire winter in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta,” Love said. “They spend their entire life in the winter.”
Love described snow buntings as nomads, able to fly hundreds of kilometres in a day, “constantly moving with the weather, constantly looking for food, always on the move.”
Right now, Love and his team are trying to find out whether snow buntings can keep pace with the Arctic’s increasingly warm springs and increasingly variable spring weather, which can bring snow storms or rain.
Snow buntings are good birds to study in order to see the impact of climate change, because they live from two to three years. If they can adapt, it will be seen more quickly than with other birds, such as murres, which can live 40 years, Love said.
The plan now is to see whether, due to warming springs, there is any mismatch between the nesting period and the availability of food for the hungry chicks.
And then there’s the question of the increased warmth as the summer comes.
“We’re asking, ‘You have a bird that’s a cold specialist, now we’re getting temperatures of 16 C, 18 C in summertime: is that too high for them?'”
They could overheat like runners in marathons, Love suggested.
But not all of the birds may be affected in the same ways, he said.
Some may cope well, and those are the ones that are going to continue on to the future, he said.
A team from the Université du Québec in Rimouski is also looking at snow buntings at the wildlife laboratory located in the Canadian Forces Station Alert.
The two research efforts hope to show which birds, those near Coral Harbour or those high on Ellesmere Island, are more sensitive to climate change—that is, the birds in the south, which might already be used to higher temperatures, or those birds who in the far North, which might be “really cold weather specialists,” as Love put it.
While in the warming Arctic, the situation of the snow buntings seems challenging, but Love said there’s always hope.
“The world is changing, and a lot of organisms have the capacity to keep pace with variability and change, ” he said. “The story is not over yet…. We need to find more answers.”