Dark-eyed Junco (Image Courtesy: Dr. David Swain)

Students and faculty at SNHU have experienced an out-of-the-ordinary start to the winter season. Not only have operations been dealing with power outages and extensive ice on walkways, but the community has been noticing strange patterns of temperature and weather that some scientists say are affecting bird populations.

November alone was considered as one of the warmest months in post-industrial revolution history, says Jeff Masters, writer for Yale Climate Connections. These weather patterns may be a result of a strong El Niño effect in the eastern Pacific Ocean which brings warm water south to north along the Americas. These events are a large contributor to the warming of average temperatures throughout the country and the world.

The largest impact of this event is the variability in weather and temperature patterns from the west to east coast. The increased occurrence of temperature anomalies caused by the overall changing of the climate and the El Niño-La Niña cycle brings up the question; what other species are noticing these trends?

In a comprehensive study of avian fitness, Conor C. Taff uses scholarly data from around the country to analyze the effects of temperature variation on the provisioning ability and breeding timing. Overall, cold snaps and heat waves were studied to identify the effects on the birds’ ability to gather food and incubate their young during temperature anomalies.

Dr. David Swain, Professor of English at SNHU, has been an avid bird watcher since 2009 when his son caught interest in the hobby, so much so that he now teaches a field ornithology course every spring to help engage other students in birding. Over the years, the birding community has been becoming more engaged in small-scale, personal research using the online database and app “eBird.” The app allows anybody to contribute data of abundance and unusual findings in the field to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Dr. Swain shared some of his observations regarding the effects of these weather anomalies, “In the last few days heavy snow up north has pushed a lot of birds like Dark-eyed Juncos down to our area, and many areas of open grass beneath trees have seen over a dozen Juncos feeding.” This delayed winter has kept some birds north for longer than has been seen in previous years because they didn’t have to leave their northernmost area due to (normal) consistently cold temperatures.

Although these El Niño and La Niña cycles are normal phenomena that add additional variability to weather patterns, we still see a long-term effect on migratory species. In September 2022, the Environmental Club at SNHU planted 5 autumn brilliance serviceberry trees as a food source for birds when they come north for the summer. It is encouraged to go out and learn about birds.