The future distribution of wetland birds breeding in Europe validated against observed changes in distribution

Cattle Egret by Jeff and Allison Kew/BTO

Author(s): Soultan, A., Pavón-Jordán, D., Bradter, U., Sandercock, B., Hochachka, W., Johnston, A., Brommer, J., Gaget, E., Keller, V., Knaus, P., Aghababyan, K., Maxhuni, Q., Vintchevski, A., Nagy, K., Raudonikis, L., Balmer, D., Noble, D., Leitão, D., Øien, I.J., Shimmings, P., Sultanov, E., Caffrey, B., Boyla, D., Radišić, Lindström, Å., Velevski, M., Pladevall, C., Brotons, L., Karel, Š., Rajković, D.Z., Chodkiewicz, T., Wilk, T.,. Tibor, S., van Turnhout, C., Foppen, R., Burfield, I., Vikstrøm, T., Mazal, V.D., Eaton, M., Vorisek, P., Lehikoinen, A., Herrando, S., Kuzmenko, T., Bauer, H-G., Kalyakin, M., Voltzit, O., Sjeničić, J. & Pärt, T.

Published: January 2022  

Journal: Environmental Research Letters

Digital Identifier No. (DOI): 10.1088/1748-9326/ac4ebe

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International collaborative research involving BTO has used data collected 30 years apart, during the two European Breeding Bird Altases, to examine range shifts in wetland birds.


Wetland bird species have been declining in population size worldwide as climate warming and land-use change affect their suitable habitats. We used species distribution models (SDMs) to predict changes in range dynamics for 64 non-passerine wetland birds breeding in Europe, including range size, position of centroid, and margins. We fitted the SDMs with data collected for the first European Breeding Bird Atlas (EBBA1) and climate and land-use data to predict distributional changes over a century (the 1970s–2070s). The predicted annual changes were then compared to observed annual changes in range size and range centroid over a time period of 30 years using data from the second European Breeding Bird Atlas (EBBA2). Our models successfully predicted ca. 75% of the 64 bird species to contract their breeding range in the future, while the remaining species (mostly southerly breeding species) were predicted to expand their breeding ranges northward. The northern margins of southerly species and southern margins of northerly species, both, predicted to shift northward. Predicted changes in range size and shifts in range centroids were broadly positively associated with the observed changes, although some species deviated markedly from the predictions. The predicted average shift in core distributions was ca. 5 km/year towards the north (5% Northeast, 45% North, and 40% Northwest), compared to a slower observed average shift of ca. 3.9 km/year. Predicted changes in range centroids were generally larger than observed changes, which suggests that bird distribution changes may lag behind environmental changes leading to "climate debt. We suggest that predictions of SDMs should be viewed as qualitative rather than quantitative outcomes, indicating that care should be taken concerning single species. Still, our results highlight the urgent need for management actions such as wetland creation and restoration to improve wetland birds' resilience to the expected environmental changes in the future.


We are very grateful to European Bird Census Council (EBCC) and all its contributors and GBIF for providing, curating, and making publicly available occurrence data from the EBBA1. We also acknowledge people and institutions that make public all the environmental data that we used in this research. Thanks to EBBA2 contributors for providing us with their recently published data. We also acknowledge the Scientific Project of the State Order of the Government of Russian Federation to Lomonosov Moscow State University No. 121032300105-0 for participating in EBBA2 data. Our research was funded through the 2017–2018 Belmont Forum and BiodivERsA joint call for research proposals, under the BiodivScen ERA ‐ Net COFUND program, with the following funding organizations: the Academy of Finland (Univ. Turku: 326327, Univ. Helsinki: 326338), the Swedish Research Council (Swedish Univ. Agric. Sci: 2018–02440, Lund Univ.: 2018–02441), the Research Council of Norway (Norwegian Instit. for Nature Res., 295767), and the National Science Foundation (Cornell Univ., ICER-1927646), and we also acknowledge the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency.

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