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Frequent, intense snowstorms bad for certain breed of bird: Western University researchers

The study shows that white-throated sparrows exposed to one storm per week increased their bodies’ energy stores as a survival mechanism, but two storms per week exhausted the birds’ ability to add to, or draw upon, their energy reserves. University of Northern British Columbia

Too many cold and rough snowstorms can affect the bodies of a certain breed of bird, according to Western University researchers.

They’ve recently made the discovery that sparrows show increased stress levels when exposed to more frequent and severe winter storms, leading researchers to believe that the finding could be troubling for other species dealing with frequent extreme weather events.

“They’re a migratory bird that tries to escape winter storms, but winter storms are increasing,” said PhD student Andrea Boyer, one of the authors of the paper.

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“If they’re being consistently exposed to these extreme weather events, it becomes concerning for their ability to cope.”

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“This is one of the few places in the world you can do a study like this” because of the facility’s capacity to mimic different climate conditions, said Scott MacDougall-Shackleton, the other author of the paper as well as the director of the Advanced Facility for Avian Research (AFAR) at Western University.

The research project is the first study to simulate the impact of winter storms on birds in a controlled setting, according to the university.

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The study shows that white-throated sparrows exposed to one storm per week increased their bodies’ energy stores as a survival mechanism, but two storms per week exhausted the birds’ ability to add to, or draw upon, their energy reserves.

The study also shows sparrows can “predict” an impending storm by detecting a drop in barometric pressure.

This will result in the birds rapidly putting on fat and body mass to prepare for it, which creates a metabolic and physiological reserve they can draw upon if a storm left them unable to forage for food.

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To conduct the study, researchers say one group of sparrows was exposed to a drop in barometric pressure and a 10-degree drop in temperature to just above freezing for eight hours, once a week for nine weeks to mimic a dramatic but realistic simulation of a weekly winter storm.

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Researchers say the once-a-week-storm birds put on body weight and fat to cope with the upcoming storm and adapted.

But in a second series of tests on a different group of sparrows, the “storms” took place twice a week and the birds were not as resilient. They had lower fat stores, less weight gain and lower energy reserves.

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“The birds remained healthy in the second study, but they couldn’t put on the fat and body mass,” said MacDougall-Shackleton.

“In the wild, if a bird isn’t able to put on that extra storage, they wouldn’t be able to recharge and they’re at higher risk of starvation.”

Researchers say sparrows can help scientists understand how other birds and animals would fare with more severe and frequent storms, which is significant as massive storms that were once expected every 20 years are now occurring multiple times in a season, according to researchers.

The paper was recently published in Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution.

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