Local temperature fine-tunes the timing of spring migration in birds

Evidence for climate-driven phenological changes is rapidly increasing at all trophic levels. Our current poor knowledge of the detailed control of bird migration from the level of genes and hormonal control to direct physiological and behavioral responses hampers our ability to understand and predict consequences of climatic change for migratory birds. In order to better understand migration phenology and adaptation in environmental changes, we here assess the scale at which weather affects timing of spring migration in passerine birds. We use three commonly used proxies of spring-time climatic conditions, (1) vegetation “greenness” (NDVI) in Europe, (2) local spring temperatures in northern Europe, and (3) the North Atlantic Oscillation Index (NAO) as predictors of the phenology of avian migration as well as the strength of their effect on different subsets of populations and the dependence of correlations on species-specific migratory strategy. We analyse phenological patterns of the entire spring migration period in 12 Palaearctic passerine species, drawing on long-term data collected at three locations along a longitudinal gradient situated close to their northern European breeding area. Local temperature was the best single predictor of phenology with the highest explanatory power achieved in combination with NAO. Furthermore, early individuals are more affected by climatic variation compared to individuals on later passage, indicating that climatic change affects subsets of migratory populations differentially. Species wintering closer to the breeding areas were affected more than were those travelling longer distances and this pattern was strongest for the earliest subsets of the population. Overall, our results suggest that at least early subsets of the population are affected by local conditions and early birds use local conditions to fine-tune the date of their spring arrival while individuals arriving later are driven by other factors than local conditions e.g. endogenous control. Understanding what cues migratory organisms use to arrive at an optimum time is important for increasing our knowledge of fundamental issues like decision making in organisms during migration and is crucial for future protection of migratory organisms.