North American populations of aerial insectivorous birds are in steep decline. Aerial insectivores (AI) are a group of bird species that feed almost exclusively on insects in flight, and include swallows, swifts, nightjars, and flycatchers. The causes of the declines are not well understood. Indeed, it is not clear when the declines began, or whether the declines are shared across all species in the group (e.g., caused by changes in flying insect populations) or specific to each species (e.g., caused by changes in species' breeding habitat). A recent study suggested that population trends of aerial insectivores changed for the worse in the 1980s. If there was such a change point in trends of the group, understanding its timing and geographic pattern could help identify potential causes of the decline. We used a hierarchical Bayesian, penalized regression spline, change point model to estimate group-level change points in the trends of 22 species of AI, across 153 geographic strata of North America. We found evidence for group-level change points in 85% of the strata. Change points for flycatchers (FC) were distinct from those for swallows, swifts and nightjars (SSN) across North America, except in the Northeast, where all AI shared the same group-level change points. During the 1980s, there was a negative change point across most of North America, in the trends of SSN. For FC, the group-level change points were more geographically variable, and in many regions there were two: a positive change point followed by a negative change point. This group-level synchrony in AI population trends is likely evidence of a response to a common environmental factor(s) with similar effects on many species across broad spatial extents. The timing and geographic patterns of the change points that we identify here should provide a spring-board for research into the causes behind aerial insectivore declines.
Smith, A. C., Hudson, M. A. R., Downes, C. M., & Francis, C. M. (2015). Change points in the population trends of aerial-insectivorous birds in North America: Synchronized in time across species and regions. PLoS ONE, 10(7). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0130768