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Nightingales at risk due to shorter wings caused by climate crisis

April 2, 2020

By Paul Homewood

No, it was not an April Fools story after all!


The nightingale was feted by John Keats as a “light-winged Dryad of the trees”. But the much-celebrated small bird with a beautiful song may be increasingly endangered because its wings are getting shorter.

The nightingale makes an epic journey from sub-Saharan Africa to breed in Europe each summer but there are barely 7,000 nesting pairs left in England.

Spanish researchers examining wing sizes of two nightingale populations in central Spain have found that the average wing length relative to their body size has fallen over the past two decades. Shorter-winged birds were found to be less likely to return to their breeding grounds after their first trip to Africa.

According to a new study published in The Auk: Ornithological Advances, natural selection driven by climate change is causing the birds to evolve with shorter wings.

In recent decades, the timing of spring has shifted in central Spain and summer droughts have become longer and more intense, leaving the nightingales a shorter window in which to raise their young.

Scientists believe that there is a suite of adaptations that make the nightingales effective migratory birds including a long wingspan, a larger clutch size and a shorter lifespan, which are controlled by a set of linked genes. This means that selective pressure on one trait also affects the other features.

If the pressure of drought is leading the most successful birds to lay smaller clutches of eggs, with fewer young to feed, then it could be causing these nightingales to also lose the other linked traits that make them such effective migrants. This is an example of “maladaptation” where species’ responses to cope with changing conditions end up causing them harm.


Details of the study are here. 


According to the RSPB, nightingales have long been rare in England, but are much more common in southern Europe:

The nightingale is a secretive bird which likes nothing better than hiding in the middle of an impenetrable bush or thicket.

They are skulking and extremely local in their distribution in the UK, while in much of southern Europe they are common and more easily seen.


Luscinia megarhynchos, subspecies. Distribution map.png

Distribution and range of nightingale


While the British population of nightingales has been declining since at least the 1960s because of habitat loss, the European breeding population is estimated at between 3.2 and 7 million pairs, giving it green conservation status (least concern). Furthermore according to Birdlife, the European population is stable.

This alone makes a nonsense of the Guardian’s claims that nightingales are at risk because of a “climate crisis”.

As for the specific claims about shorter springs and longer, drier summers, the nightingale’s widespread range, which encompasses all sorts of climates proves that the bird is fully capable of adapting to different weather patterns, which themselves change far more on an annual basis because of natural variation.

But I doubt whether the study would have been funded in the first place, if the purpose was not to blame climate change.

  1. Patsy Lacey permalink
    April 2, 2020 12:34 pm

    “Scientists believe” perhaps they also believe in fairies.

  2. megagriff permalink
    April 2, 2020 12:49 pm

    That’s a pretty good April Fool’s gag – for the Guardian. “The Auk – Ornithological Advances” indeed! LOL

  3. jack broughton permalink
    April 2, 2020 12:51 pm

    Got to be an April Fools joke……… surely!

    • April 2, 2020 3:51 pm

      Yes. Of course it is. Just one day late, but the delay was caused by trying to think of something sufficiently insane, idiotic and ridiculous, with which to con and confuse their gullible readers.

  4. Alan Kendall permalink
    April 2, 2020 12:52 pm

    A strange concept: evolving in response to environmental change in ways that make species LESS adaptable to the changed conditions. Wonder how natural selection manages that particular trick.

  5. Thomas Carr permalink
    April 2, 2020 12:53 pm

    No news of the Italians historic tradition of trap netting wild birds for amusement and the table then? Perhaps I was asleep when this was outlawed.

  6. Philip Mulholland permalink
    April 2, 2020 12:54 pm

    One of the most interesting things about migration is that when a population moves its location in response to seasonal stress (summer to winter) the birds on the northern most edge of the range move first and have to fly across the full still occupied extent of the range to reach new vacant territory in the south. In other words the population does not move south en-mass, instead each bird responds to its personal stress and the birds in the centre of the range move south later in the season. The migration process therefore takes place in a series of overlapping moves.
    Imagine a time in the past when the Earth’s climate was more amenable and the Sahara desert did not exist. In this scenario, birds that summered in Europe would have to fly to west Africa, whereas the birds in the centre of the range would stay put. Natural climate change created the Sahara desert and the birds in the middle of the range died out, This left the long distance migrants from Europe to west Africa as the sole representatives of the now established migratory species.

    • hostelmandotcom permalink
      April 3, 2020 5:10 pm

      “Imagine a time when the Earth’s climate was more amenable?” There is NO single climatic region on the Earth. There are multiple climatic regions. However I challenge you to present your case citing ” the more amenable climate”, when it was, where it was and what made it “more amenable”? You do know that climatic regions shift latitude constantly depending upon the situation being a warming or a cooling ? Yes? I also would like to draw your attention to the Minoan The Roman and the Medieval Warm periods. The Nightingale seems to have sailed through those quite well. I will point out to you that the current warming began at the end of the Little Ice Age, 350 years ago approximately. I await your thesis supported by statistically significant empirical data with impatience.

  7. April 2, 2020 1:02 pm

    “According to a new study published in The Ornithological Advances, natural selection driven by climate change is causing the birds to evolve with shorter wings.”

    I will add this to my list of goofy climate impact studies

  8. David Virgo permalink
    April 2, 2020 1:17 pm

    The paper appears to report a single fact of shorter wings in two selected Spanish populations. The rest appears to be speculation based on nothing more than a string of possible ifs. Difficult to know if there is anything more substantial without recourse to the original paper, but I doubt it.

  9. Broadlands permalink
    April 2, 2020 1:28 pm

    Did the wings get longer during the ‘global’ cooling that took place from 1938 until 1975 in the Northern Hemisphere? Almost four decades?

  10. bobn permalink
    April 2, 2020 1:50 pm

    Probably the the longer winged ones are more likely to be shot by the Spanish and Italians.

  11. mikewaite permalink
    April 2, 2020 2:24 pm

    We may see far fewer of such studies if the report in the Guardian is correct
    I would hope that when reconstruction begins, priority in the form of govt funding to universities will be directed to restoring the ruined agricultural and manufacturing base and putting that money into virus research to prevent another crisis instead of spurious climate change related studies such as this , (at least one hopes so , but with the rather dim crowd in Govt at the moment that can not be guaranteed)..
    It would be ironic if this crisis rendered extinct (so far as careers are concerned) those who claimed that global warming of a fraction of a degree rendered millions of species extinct.
    But being realistic I expect it will be engineering and medicine depts that will take the brunt of permanent closure and anything related to climate change or the even more holy Gender Studies will continue as before .

  12. Harry Passfield permalink
    April 2, 2020 2:34 pm

    Well, that’s it then. That’s all the proof – if proof was ever needed – we need to close the country down again and stop people travelling. Give it a few years and the whole panic will be over, one way or another. Of course, there won’t be a country left to lock down again. /s

  13. Dave Cowdell permalink
    April 2, 2020 2:43 pm

    Due to the Coronovirus restrictions on my travelling I have already noted that my legs have become shorter.

  14. Gerry, England permalink
    April 2, 2020 2:46 pm

    I think we should be worried when birds turn out to be smarter than the ‘scientists’ studying them.

  15. tom0mason permalink
    April 2, 2020 2:56 pm


    What utter BS.
    Based on “Spanish researchers examining wing sizes of two nightingale populations in central Spain have found that the average wing length relative to their body size has fallen over the past two decades.”
    Historically how far did nightingales fly when the Romans expanded their empire into Spain? Back when they hunted many animals to extinction throughout Europe. Animals that are now only found on subtropical grasslands, savannas, and shrublands (including wolves, and large cats, maybe even lions — see about the European lions). Animals that were often used for the entertainment of the masses in the arenas and Colosseums (bread and circuses, or bread and games; from Latin: panem et circenses — see the very pertinent
    That was back when Spain still had some subtropical grasslands, savannas, shrublands and some forests covering most of it’s interior region, an area that today is mostly desert!

    Darwin would not be impress with this level of hokum.

    Still it did make me LOL!

  16. April 2, 2020 3:16 pm

    Let’s reduce the wingspans of jets to make flights shorter, thus lowering ’emissions’ 😆

  17. Phillip Bratby permalink
    April 2, 2020 3:28 pm

    I’d like to know what the uncertainty is when measuring wingspan.

  18. Coeur de Lion permalink
    April 2, 2020 5:44 pm

    Can’t be bothered to complain to the BBC again.

  19. Ray Sanders permalink
    April 2, 2020 7:53 pm

    Clickbait in its nastiest form. The same day as the Nightingale Hospital was opened to address a real problem the gutter rag Guardian highlights this piece of truly pathetic dross.
    This is becoming sick in the extreme.

  20. April 3, 2020 8:38 am

    Because of the date that this emerged on I thought that it was a spoof. If this actually is the case then perhaps we now know how penguins evolved? Such changes usually come about because it gives the species some sort of advantage, the more successful sorts dominate the breeding colony. We seem to be a long way off from these birds copying their cousins the Blackcaps, more of which are taking permanent residence here, not going away for the winter. Mixed messages.I would be more focused on environment and the loss of habitat. In East Cheshire, iconic traditional countryside is fast disappearing under new housing estates, wanton acts of vandalism.

    • mikewaite permalink
      April 3, 2020 9:29 am

      We have had a Blackcap at the feeder in our garden here on the southern edge of Trafford all winter. My wife first noticed one about 3 years ago ,tried to record it for the RSPB birdwatch but found that the online form did not acknowledge the presence of Blackcaps as winter residents in the UK. The birds are evolving faster than our ability to realise it.

      • Malcolm Chapman permalink
        April 3, 2020 3:13 pm

        Same here, in west Bradford, a pair of blackcaps on the feeders all winter – black cap and brown cap. Very nice. As far as I understand it, the overwintering blackcaps of our local wood (we called it Heaton Woods, although it tends not to get called that on official maps) have been known to the nation’s twitchers for a long time.

        For another bit of nonsense on climate change, today’s Times has an article about a new take on the evolution of Homo Erectus. Very interesting. The article speculates on competition between different human-ish species, and suggests that Australopithecus went extinct rather than being part of the lineage leading to modern humans. And then, as a piece of pure speculation, and entirely gratuitous in relation to the rest of the content, concludes “…as the last surviving human species, we should not think we are immune to the same fate as Australopithecus, who likely became extinct as a result of the changing climate two million years ago”. Unbelievable. It is a ritual obeisance to the orthodoxy of our time. Stuff them. Time for them, as someone puts it in another thread, to stfu.

  21. David Virgo permalink
    April 3, 2020 10:18 am

    Another piece of equally daft nonsense in today’s Telegraph – “Plankton hit by climate change”. Nothing to do with changes in fishing practice or industrial pollution, of course.

    • Bertie permalink
      April 3, 2020 3:17 pm

      I took that to be an April fool.

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