Release Date: 
Friday, January 5, 2018
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A New York State Museum study shows that most of the bird species breeding on the slopes of Whiteface Mountain have shifted their ranges uphill in the last 40 years. The research, conducted by Dr. Jeremy Kirchman, Curator of Birds at the New York State Museum, and Alison Van Keuren, an avid birder who volunteers in the ornithology collection at the State Museum, sheds new light on the response of wildlife to observed climate change in upstate New York. 

Dr. Kirchman and Van Keuren replicated bird surveys conducted in 1974 by Kenneth Able and Barry Noon, two former researchers at the University at Albany, SUNY. For the re-survey, Kirchman and Van Keuren made stops along the road up Whiteface Mountain to tally all birds seen and heard in the early morning and evening hours at altitudes from 550 to 1450 meters above sea level. These new data were gathered in June and July of 2013-2015. 

Dr. Kirchman and Van Keuren found that for 42 species detected in both survey periods, the average elevational shift was +83 meters. Five species showed no elevational shift, 11 species shifted slightly downhill, while 26 species have shifted uphill, some by hundreds of meters. They also found that upper range boundaries (the highest elevation where a bird species was found) have shifted more than lower range boundaries, and that bird species diversity has nearly doubled in the last forty years at the highest survey point as several mid-elevation species have colonized the top of Whiteface Mountain.

“When Able and Noon conducted their surveys in 1974, there were only seven bird species at the top of Whiteface Mountain, but we found 13,” Dr. Kirchman explains. “We found a variety of shifts in different species, in terms of both magnitude and direction, but the predominant pattern is one of uphill shifting of breeding ranges. This is consistent with other recent studies that have tracked the changing altitudinal ranges of birds and other kinds of animals and plants living on mountains all around the world, including some in the northeast, but our study adds important details and a deeper time dimension to our understanding of how forest birds are tracking climate change.”

The researchers also obtained surface temperature data collected each year since 1973 at a weather monitoring station at nearby Lake Placid, NY, and found that average daily minimum and average daily maximum temperatures for the summer breeding season have risen steadily over the last 40 years, by a total of 4.43 °F (2.46 °C) and 3.38 °F (1.88 °C), respectively.

“Uphill movement is what one would expect given the rise in temperatures over this same time period in the Adirondacks,” Dr. Kirchman said. “Still, we should be cautious about overinterpreting the link with warming temperatures given that the historic bird data were from a single year (1974), and because it’s clear that species distributions are determined by more than just climate.

“Because of our previous work on birds in the Adirondacks, I was familiar with the Able and Noon paper, and in 2012 I had the idea to track down Ken Able and see if he still had the bird survey data somewhere,” Dr. Kirchman explains. “Our study of altitudinal range shifts was made possible because Ken saved the raw observations recorded on paper data sheets in 1974 for four decades. In this case, birding plus careful record-keeping equals ornithology. Our Whiteface Mountain study is easily repeatable in the future for any skilled birders that wish to verify or refute our results, or that want to continue to track movements of birds in the era of rapid climate change.”

Dr. Kirchman has worked at the New York State Museum since 2006. He is a Fellow of the American Ornithological Society and past member of the Board of Directors of both the New York State Ornithological Association and the Wilson Ornithological Society. Mr. Van Keuren is retired from the US Navy Reserve and a career in pharmaceutical sales. Since 2012 he has volunteered two days per week at the State Museum, helping to catalog and digitize the extensive collection of bird egg specimens from the 19th and early 20th centuries.

The paper describing this research is entitled, Altitudinal range shifts of birds at the southern periphery of the boreal forest: 40 years of change in the Adirondack Mountains. It is published in the December 2017 issue of the Wilson Journal of Ornithology, vol.129, pages 742-753.