These changes are present in nearly all of the species he measured, according to a study of 70,716 bird specimens from almost 40 years published Wednesday in the journal Ecology Letters. Morphing birds, Willard and his colleagues say, reflect a changing climate.
“Warming temperatures seem to be having a pretty consistent and almost universal effect on a large number of different species, regardless of other aspects of their biology,” said study author Benjamin Winger, who studies the evolution and ecology of birds at the University of Michigan.
The basis for the study began after an acquaintance mentioned to Willard that birds often dashed into a glassy convention center, McCormick Place, near the museum. (The convention center, the biggest in North America, reduced its nighttime lights about 20 years ago; as a result, bird deaths there have dropped by about three-quarters, Willard said. McCormick Place also recently installed a bird habitat over one of its underground parking garages.)
Climate change wasn’t on his mind, Willard said, when he started gathering the birds to add to the museum’s collection. He measured their beaks, legs, mass and wings — standard ornithological dimensions — because he was curious about seasonal trends.
As the years passed, Willard was joined by other museum staff and a volunteer organization, Chicago Bird Collision Monitors, which also collects birds harmed by windows. The volunteers rehabilitate injured birds and donate only the departed ones to the museum. By 2016, Willard had enough samples from over the years of 52 common species — represented by more than 70,000 individual birds — to conduct the long-term analysis.
Simon Griffith, an ecologist at Macquarie University in Australia who was not a member of the research team, said it was “just amazing” that a single scientist measured such an extensive collection. “It reduces the noise in the data-set,” which he said was more standardized in methodology and geology than previous studies that suggest climate change influences bird size.
Fifteen species of common birds, including swamp sparrows and dark-eyed juncos, made up the majority of the specimens. But elusive birds ended up in Willard’s ledgers of measurements, too, such as a single yellow rail, a rarely seen marsh bird. Willard said he identified Illinois’s first Brewer’s sparrow, a tiny bird that usually keeps to the western United States.
From 1978 to 2016, birds on average lost 2.6 percent of their mass and their legs shortened by 2.4 percent. Their wings, meanwhile, lengthened by 1.3 percent.
“The changes that are being documented are not something you could see with your eye,” Willard said. But that they appear in such a large sample, and one that involves diverse bird species, indicates the trends are real and widespread, he said.
Winger said it was unclear whether small reductions harm the birds. “We don’t really know what the biological significance is of this difference,” he said.
But this observation was potentially concerning to Griffith, who compared this with other broad-scale patterns in birds, such as the recent study reporting the 29 percent decline in North American bird populations since 1970.
The study authors examined precipitation, vegetation and other factors that could contribute to bird size. They determined an increase in summer temperatures is the strongest predictor for smaller birds.
“In years when temperatures were a bit warmer, the bodies got smaller. In years when temperatures were a bit cooler, we saw an increase in body size, even though the long-term trend was to decline,” Winger said. “So that leads us to believe that temperature is pretty important here.” Smaller animals have larger surface-area-to-volume ratios, and this allows them to lose body heat more quickly. Winger proposes that hotter temperatures could apply pressure on birds to become smaller to stay cooler.
Griffith offered another possibility: His research, studying zebra finches and house sparrows in laboratories and in the wild, shows that hot temperatures during the breeding season reduce the size of bird offspring. When young birds are stressed by the heat, they don’t grow large, he said.
The lengthening wings were unexpected, the scientists said. Flight requires the most energy of all the ways back-boned creatures move. The study authors hypothesize the wingspan changes could help the birds eke out an energetic edge. “Birds with longer and more pointed wings,” Winger said, “might be more efficient fliers.”
Willard, now retired, said he plans to continue measuring birds for as long as he can. On Tuesday, in the museum’s storage, a thousand birds awaited his rulers. “When I’m done talking to you,” he said, “I’m going to do a few more.”