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Population limitation in migrants

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Unlike resident bird species, the population sizes of migratory species can be influenced by conditions in more than one part of the world. Changes in the numbers of migrant birds, either long-term or year-to-year, may be caused by changes in conditions in the breeding or wintering areas or both. The strongest driver of numerical change is provided in whichever area the per capita effects of adverse factors on survival or fecundity are greatest. Examples are given of some species whose numbers have changed in association with conditions in breeding areas, and of others whose numbers have changed in association with conditions in wintering areas. In a few such species, the effects of potential limiting factors have been confirmed locally by experiment. In theory, population sizes might also be limited by severe competition at restricted stopover sites, where bird densities are often high and food supplies heavily depleted, but (with one striking exception) the evidence is as yet no more than suggestive. In some species, habitats occupied in wintering and migration areas, and their associated food supplies, can influence the body condition, migration dates and subsequent breeding success of migrants. Body reserves accumulated in spring by large waterfowl serve for migration and for subsequent breeding, and females with the largest reserves are most likely to produce young. Hence, the conditions experienced by individuals in winter in one region can affect their subsequent breeding success in another region. Such effects are apparent at the level of the individual and at the level of the population. Similarly, the numbers of young produced in one region could, through density-dependent processes, affect subsequent overall mortality in another region. Events in breeding, migration and wintering areas are thus interlinked in their effects on bird numbers. Although in the last 30–40¬†years the numbers of some tropical wintering birds have declined in western Europe and others in eastern North America, the causes seem to differ. In Europe, declines have mainly involved species that winter in the arid savannas of tropical Africa, which have suffered from the effects of drought and increasing desertification. In several species, annual fluctuations in numbers and adult survival rates were correlated with annual fluctuations in rainfall, and by implication in winter food supplies. In North America, by contrast, numerical declines have affected many species that breed and winter in forest, especially those eastern species favouring the forest interior. Declines have been attributed ultimately to human-induced changes in the breeding range, particularly forest fragmentation, which have led to increases in the densities of nest predators and parasitic cowbirds. These in turn are thought to have caused declines in the breeding success of some neotropical migrants, which is now too low to offset the usual adult mortality, but as yet convincing evidence is available for only a minority of species. The breeding rates and population changes of some migratory species have been influenced by natural changes in the availability of defoliating caterpillars. In other species, tropical deforestation is likely to have played the major role in population decline, and if recent rates of tropical deforestation continue, it is likely to affect an increasing range of migratory species in the future. Not all such species are likely to be affected adversely by deforestation, however, and some may benefit from the resulting habitat changes.
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Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: 2004-04-01

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