Alaska’s Migratory Birds Cope with Climate Change

Arctic Shorebird Photo
WCS studies changes in the seasonal nesting patterns of tundra-nesting birds.
©Steve Zack

The treeless tundra might not seem like the most obvious roost for birds, but in fact, the Arctic coastal plain of Alaska is one of the most productive wetland nesting grounds in the world. Each spring, millions of birds migrate to the Arctic from their wintering grounds in practically every part of the globe. More than 25 species—mostly shorebirds and waterfowl—feast on young plant growth and insects to build up their energy reserves before they mate, and produce the next generation of birds. These fertile grounds are also home to musk oxen, caribou, and polar bears.


WCS conservationists have observed a variety of potential impacts of climate change on tundra-nesting birds. One result is that the Arctic Ocean coastline is facing an increased rate of erosion. This is introducing salty ocean water into freshwater marshes, which could be impacting the birds that feed in these coastal marshes before winging their way south after the breeding season. Climate change has also resulted in an earlier spring in Arctic Alaska. Some birds are nesting more than a week earlier than they did 25 years ago—a small change with potentially grave consequences. The shift may interrupt an important correlation between the hatching of chicks and the emergence of insect prey, a key source of food for baby birds. Lastly, a drying trend seems to be taking place in many parts of the Arctic tundra. As lakes and ponds shrink in size, the birds that feed along the water edges may have a harder time finding insects to eat.


  • Provide baseline information and track changes on overall distribution, abundance, and population trends for shorebirds in Arctic Alaska.
  • Develop management strategies that lessen the stress of energy extraction activities and climate change on wildlife.
  • Work with conservation planners to protect areas of habitat that are most resilient to the effects of climate change.

What WCS is Doing

WCS-North America conservationists are studying changes in the seasonal nesting patterns of tundra-nesting birds. As we follow the nesting biology of shorebirds and waterfowl in Arctic Alaska, we are able to identify key areas for conservation in this changing landscape of warmer springs and expanding energy development.

From the Newsroom

Bird's Eye View of the Changing ClimateJune 28, 2013

Steve Zack, WCS's Coordinator of Bird Conservation, describes the impacts of climate change on the annual spring journeys and breeding habits of migratory birds.

Arctic Breeding Birds Need Our AttentionApril 24, 2013

Every year, millions of birds migrate to the coastal wetlands of Arctic Alaska to breed. Joe Liebezeit, WCS’s Arctic birds project leader, explains how rising temperatures are dramatically transforming this landscape and the lives of its seasonal residents.

A Scientist’s Blog from the ArcticJuly 12, 2011

Dr. Steve Zack blogs on his migratory bird studies from Alaska’s Teshekpuk Lake, the largest Arctic wetland complex in the world.

Striking Balance in the Arctic October 13, 2010

WCS asks the government to fully protect “Special Areas” in Alaska’s National Petroleum Reserve for caribou and migratory birds.

An Arctic Adventure: Day 8June 18, 2010

This week, WCS scientists are trekking across the vast and remote Alaskan Arctic and deep into the National Petroleum Reserve to explore how best to conserve Arctic wildlife in the midst of expanding energy development. WCS conservationist Steve Zack is chronicling the trip for the New York Times' Scientists at Work blog.


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