A tale of two seasons: The link between seasonal migration and climatic niches in passerine birds

The question of whether migratory birds track a specific climatic niche by seasonal movements has important implications for understanding the evolution of migration, the factors affecting species' distributions, and the responses of migrants to climate change. Despite much research, previous studies of bird migration have produced mixed results. However, whether migrants track climate is only one half of the question, the other being why residents remain in the same geographic range year-round. We provide a literature overview and test the hypothesis of seasonal niche tracking by evaluating seasonal climatic niche overlap across 437 migratory and resident species from eight clades of passerine birds. Seasonal climatic niches were based on a new global dataset of breeding and nonbreeding ranges. Overlap between climatic niches was quantified using ordination methods. We compared niche overlap of migratory species to two null expectations, (a) a scenario in which they do not migrate and (b) in comparison with the overlap experienced by closely related resident species, while controlling for breeding location and range size. Partly in accordance with the hypothesis of niche tracking, we found that the overlap of breeding versus non-breeding climatic conditions in migratory species was greater than the overlap they would experience if they did not migrate. However, this was only true for migrants breeding outside the tropics and only relative to the overlap species would experience if they stayed in the breeding range year-round. In contrast to the hypothesis of niche tracking, migratory species experienced lower seasonal climatic niche overlap than resident species, with significant differences between tropical and non-tropical species. Our study suggests that in seasonal non-tropical environments migration away from the breeding range may serve to avoid seasonally harsh climate; however, different factors may drive seasonal movements in the climatically more stable tropical regions.