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Adjustment to climate change is constrained by arrival date in a long-distance migrant bird


Spring temperatures in temperate regions have increased over the past 20 years1, and many organisms have responded to this increase by advancing the date of their growth and reproduction2,3,4,5,6,7. Here we show that adaptation to climate change in a long-distance migrant is constrained by the timing of its migratory journey. For long-distance migrants climate change may advance the phenology of their breeding areas, but the timing of some species’ spring migration relies on endogenous rhythms that are not affected by climate change8. Thus, the spring migration of these species will not advance even though they need to arrive earlier on their breeding grounds to breed at the appropriate time. We show that the migratory pied flycatcher Ficedula hypoleuca has advanced its laying date over the past 20 years. This temporal shift has been insufficient, however, as indicated by increased selection for earlier breeding over the same period. The shift is hampered by its spring arrival date, which has not advanced. Some of the numerous long-distance migrants will suffer from climate change, because either their migration strategy is unaffected by climate change, or the climate in breeding and wintering areas are changing at different speeds, preventing adequate adaptation.

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Figure 1: Spring temperature, breeding and spring arrival date of a pied flycatcher population in the Netherlands from 1980 to 2000.
Figure 2: Breeding date and spring arrival of a pied flycatcher population as a function of spring temperature in the Netherlands.


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J. H. van Balen and J. Visser managed the long-term study for many years. The board of National Park ‘De Hoge Veluwe’ kindly allowed us to work on their property. J. Pilzecker and R. Bijlsma allowed us to use some of their unpublished observations of flycatcher arrival. J. Harvey, C. M. Lessells and A. J. van Noordwijk commented on an earlier draft.

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Correspondence to Marcel E. Visser.

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Both, C., Visser, M. Adjustment to climate change is constrained by arrival date in a long-distance migrant bird. Nature 411, 296–298 (2001).

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