Dusky Thrush 

As city heat rises, bird diversity declines

Humans aren’t the only ones leaving town when city heat becomes unbearable.

A study done on 336 cities in China concludes that heat-retaining buildings and paved surfaces are directly related to a loss in bird diversity. These findings from scientists at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Zhejiang University were published Aug. 14 in Science of the Total Environment.

“The heat-retention characteristic of cities is a well-known phenomenon called the urban heat island effect,” said corresponding author Frank La Sorte, senior research associate at the Cornell Lab. “Our findings document, for the first time, the direct relationship between bird diversity and the ‘urban heat island’ effect across multiple seasons.

“The urban heat island effect is not unique to Chinese cities,” La Sorte said, “and it is likely that the patterns documented in this study are occurring in other large cities across the globe that have abundant asphalt, steel and concrete and little green vegetation.”

Study authors said birds move to cooler suburban areas, decreasing diversity in the city during the breeding and non-breeding seasons, but the trend is especially strong during the non-breeding season. Lower bird species diversity also persists regardless of the city’s size or location.

Using data from an ongoing bird diversity study in China, the researchers determined the surface urban heat island intensity for each city compared to its suburbs. The impact of the urban heat island effect was documented after controlling for each city’s unique environmental and ecological setting.

They expected their models to show an increase in diversity during the non-breeding season and a decrease in diversity during the breeding season.

“What we did not expect was that diversity loss was even more pronounced during the non-breeding season,” said senior author Jiayu Wu, associate professor of agriculture and biotechnology at Zhejiang University. “We predicted that the urban heat island effect would relax the costs of staying warm during the winter, making it less necessary for birds to migrate and resulting in an increase in species diversity during the non-breeding season, especially in colder cities.”

Instead, the urban heat island effect on bird diversity remained consistently negative during both the breeding and non-breeding seasons in the southern, northern and northwestern regions of China. Results for the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau region were quite different however, with the heat island effect having a positive relationship with the number of species. The scientists suggest that adaptations to the alpine environment may have increased tolerance to extreme temperatures, enabling local birds to thrive in the region’s urban environments.

With climate change boosting temperatures around the world, cities are likely to get even hotter, adding yet another challenge to birds that already face threats such as pollution and habitat fragmentation. Though vegetation can offset some of the heat, this study concludes it’s not been enough so far to wipe out the overall negative effect of urban heat islands in most of China.

This work was supported by National Natural Science Foundation of China, the Natural Science Foundation of Zhejiang Province and the Young Elite Scientists Sponsorship Program by China Association for Science and Technology.

Pat Leonard is a writer for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

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