Swallows fly new paths

2011-11-29 00:00

SWALLOWS, which breed in Europe and migrate to Africa during the northern winter, are showing changes in their migratory patterns as a result of climate change.

Barn Swallows (Hirundo rustica) breeding in Europe have shown well-documented responses to climate change there, mainly by arriving earlier from their African migration, to coincide with the earlier springs that are a feature of climate change.

Until now it has been unknown as to what is happening on their non-breeding grounds in Africa, where swallows undergo critical life-cycle events such as moulting and refuelling after breeding.

Do swallows leave their African non-breeding grounds earlier, fly fas­ter, or perhaps not fly as far south as they did previously?

A study published in the Royal Society journal, Proceedings of the Royal Society B, draws on data from two innovative citizen-science projects, the Southern African Bird Atlas Projects 1 (1987-1991) and 2 (2007-present), to show that Barn Swallows certainly do leave earlier from those parts of their South African non-breeding grounds where they used to stay longest.

“Shifts in arrival of migratory birds at their breeding grounds are among the most noticeable effects of climate change,” says Res Altwegg, population ecologist at the South African National Biodiversity Institute (Sanbi) and lead author of the paper.

The Barn Swallow is the 2011 “Bird of the Year” for the major South African conservation NGO, BirdLife South Africa, which has been promoting this species in a climate change context all year.

• feature1@witness.co.za

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