French scientist believes birds can provide key clues about climate change

Photo taken Jan. 12, 2019, by a member of the Homeward Bound expedition on Antarctica's Danco Island showing a colony of penguins. EFE-EPA/ Anne Charmantier

Photo taken Jan. 12, 2019, by a member of the Homeward Bound expedition on Antarctica’s Danco Island showing a colony of penguins. EFE-EPA/ Anne Charmantier


Anne Charmantier, one of the 80 female professionals and scientists who are touring Antarctica on board the Ushuaia, and who has dedicated herself to studying the adaptation processes of birds, is sure that these creatures - as “sentinels” of the environment - provide valuable clues about climate change.

The French expert on ecology and evolution spoke with EFE during the Homeward Bound expedition to Antarctica, an Australian program supported by the Spanish firm Acciona which seeks to foster female leadership and the visibility of women on global issues such as climate change.

Charmantier discussed details of her study, which is focused on how birds adapt amid rapid environmental changes in terms of their reproduction and behavior, looking in particular at two very common European bird populations: Cyanistes caeruleus, the common chickadee or blue tit; and Parus major, the common coal tit.

When asked where her interest in studying bird adaptation came from, Charmantier responded: “I began to investigate the adaptation of birds to rapid change frameworks because there’s a large amount of information available about the birds in Europe. This is long-term information, which means that we can know what the birds have been doing over the past three, four or five decades, which provides a broad context for analyzing how they’re adapting to rapid changes.”

The main finding of her studies has been that “a large part of the bird population has been adjusting its reproductive mechanisms,” such that “when the spring is very warm, they’re born earlier.” But she has also found that although many populations are adapting well, others are not and their numbers are falling due to climate change.

Charmantier said she started studying bird reproduction and how it is linked to climate change adaptation many years ago, but recently she became interested in looking at how birds adapt to urbanization and how bird species in cities shift their behavior with rapid environmental changes, since cities are very different from the natural environment.

She said that “we believe ... that bird behavior and especially their cognitive aspect and their ability to innovate are probably determining factors in making their adaptation easier in the city environment.”

The French expert said that her studies strongly suggest that birds can provide clues about climate change, noting that during warm springs, birds exhibit different behavior and - in particular - change their reproductive patterns.

She said she has found that one of the species, the blue tit, over the past 30 years has moved up its reproduction schedule by almost two weeks, and that’s a key change she and her colleagues have seen that goes beyond a warming climate.

When asked by EFE how, as a Homeward Bound expedition member, she views the role of women as leaders in science, Charmantier said that in her field of the ecology of evolution and in France she sees that women play a key role as leaders but the Homeward Bound program has helped her to recognize that there’s still a “long road ahead. I think it’s very necessary for all of society to empower women to learn about leadership and that they can have a real impact on science.”

The Homeward Bound tour of Antarctica will last until Jan. 19.

Homeward Bound, with its backing by Spanish infrastructure and renewable energy firm Acciona, is a global initiative for women in the STEMM fields (i.e. science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine) with an eye toward boosting female visibility as leaders on matters of global import.