Looking to Migrating Birds for Clues About Climate Change

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Molly Samuel/KQED

Volunteers at the San Francisco Bay Bird Observatory tag a common yellowthroat at the Coyote Creek Field Station in Milipitas, California.

It's peak migration for millions of birds making their way through the Bay Area on their way north. Local scientists are studying these wild birds, trying to determine what migration patterns can tell us about climate change.

JOSH SCULLEN: Welcome to the field station.

MOLLY SAMUEL: Josh Scullen is holding a tiny, brilliant yellow bird in the palm of his hand. Fifteen people inch in for a closer view. Scullen is showing the group how to band birds like the Wilson’s warbler, a teacup-sized songbird with a black patch of feathers on its head.

SCULLEN: How many of you guys have seen bird banding before?

SAMUEL: Scullen is a biologist at the San Francisco Bay Bird Observatory.  He’s banding songbirds at the Coyote Creek field station, in Milipitas. After catching the birds with netting, he attaches metal bands to their legs. Each one has a different number, so scientists can study the birds over time.

SCULLEN: And this is one of the smaller birds that we catch.

JILL DEMERS: We’re catching a lot of great migrants today. We’ve seen Yellow Warblers and Wilson's warblers, Swainson’s Thrushes.

SAMUEL: Jill Demers is the executive director of the San Francisco Bay Bird Observatory. The organization has been banding birds here for more than thirty years, and checking their health, taking their weight, and noting their approximate age.

DEMERS: We have several graduate students that have been working with the San Francisco Bay Bird Observatory and other partners to look at the effects of climate change on bird body size for example.
SAMUEL: A study last year found that climate change is making some bird species larger. Another one, which hasn’t been published yet, finds that some bird species are migrating earlier.

At the peak of migration season, Scullen and others are catching and banding up to fifty birds a day, adding to the hundreds of thousands of records they already have. They'll use the data to try to better understand the mysteries of migratory bird patterns, and what they can teach us about climate change.

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