An animal behavioralist or a birder will usually trust animal behavior much sooner than a meteorologist’s predictions.
The natural world, which includes plants, insects, fish, and birds, has a better ability to interpret subtle weather changes than humanity, as it is part of their body structure. Birds can sense barometric pressure, the same as some of us are sensitive to it, levels of humidity, and an assortment of other things, as well as intricate combinations.
If we attempt to read the “signs,” we first must know what is normal in any given region before we can even hope to look at what the weather indictor might be.
Insectivores hold many secrets of the natural world, and if one is observant enough, these protein eaters give up their sources quite readily. Insects are more sensitive to weather changes than any other ecosystem, as it can quickly be a matter of life and death for them. They have declined faster than birds, as it is the main food source for so many, especially when it is breeding season.
Their habitats are just as fragmented and reduced as the birds experience, and Canadian habitats are sometimes worse than the US, as the mainstay of the breeding birds go there and so, as higher temperatures force them there.
Some of the most rapid losses in the birder’s world include flycatchers, nightjars, swallows, and swifts. We have watched it happen over the decades and it was written about how we lost three billion birds in a half century. There is rarely one thing that is ever a cause in declines, be it rampant pesticide use, breeding and wintering grounds, window strikes, more invasive species, excess heat or extreme cold, or a combination of the above.
Basically, El Nino and La Nina years bring colder and rainier weather with them from the Pacific Ocean near the equator. These weather conditions affect worldwide weather. This of course, affects our insect populations with both positive and negative phases, and it affected them with a rapid decline. This naturally affects the birds worldwide with seasonal storms and wind conditions.
Once this is coupled with AMO (Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation) the climate cycles affected the Barn Swallow in the Pacific Northwest but not in Ontario and any of their northern points.
Across North America, as we have seen for years, swallows have the most sensitivity to climate change, while nightjars are less affected, but other causes like habitat loss were clearly a cause of decline, as was roosting behavior to evolutionary relationships. On the other hand, swifts and flycatchers were about in the middle in sensitivity to climate change, whom are prominently forest-associated birds.
We have just barely touched upon some of the problems that insects, birds, fish, and plants are affected by. No single driver will explain everything, as it is all a matter of case by case with both regional and migratory influences.
Keep your eyes on the ground and your head in the clouds. Happy birding!
Deb Hirt is a wild bird rehabilitator and professional photographer living in Stillwater.