Newswise — The Department of Defense (DoD) has awarded a team of researchers, led by Boise State University biological sciences professor Julie Heath, a four-year, $1.7 million grant to monitor the effects of climate change on American kestrels and develop a modeling system that can be used broadly to predict how other avian species will react to changes in weather patterns. This is an increasingly pressing need within DoD as well as the broader scientific and conservation community.

“The DoD manages about 28 million acres of land across the country that support biodiversity and provide a variety of environments to support testing and training missions. To best manage this biodiversity, we need to understand whether and how species will respond to climate change,” Heath explained.

Richard Fischer of DoD’s Environmental Laboratory added that “the DoD must adhere to all federal laws and regulations, and understanding climate change impacts to flora and fauna provides direct support to maintaining the ability of the military services to train and prepare the warfighter.”

Heath and faculty members from Boise State’s geosciences department are collaborating with researchers from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA); Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota; Hawkwatch International; The Peregrine Fund; and the Environmental Laboratory of the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center. The grant is administered by the Department of Defense’s Strategic Environmental Research and Development Program. The research team believes the project will have broad implications for science and conservation.

“We need to understand how birds, particularly birds of prey, are responding so we can interpret migration patterns that we see at monitoring stations,” explained Dave Oleyar of HawkWatch International. “It’s important that we understand the wildlife response to climate change, as our traditional monitoring methods assume static climates, and therefore we assume that annual cycles remain constant. When we see declines in count trends, is that because we have fewer birds or because fewer are migrating?”

The multi-phase project will begin summer 2017 with a large-scale investigation of the environmental and genetic factors underlying nesting and migration patterns among American kestrels, in partnership with The Peregrine Fund, Hawkwatch International and UCLA. The team then will use genetic tools and tracking technology to identify how breeding, migration and wintering areas for the birds are interconnected.

“Kestrels are a unique species for study because they live all across North America, so different populations are being exposed to different patterns of climate change. And depending on where kestrels live, they have different annual cycles. That creates a natural experiment,” Chris McClure of the Peregrine Fund explained. For example, kestrels that live in Alaska may migrate every winter whereas kestrels in Florida may never migrate.

Modelers from Boise State’s geosciences department and Saint Mary’s then will combine genetic and migratory research with regional and local weather variables to develop an individual-based model capable of testing hypotheses about the causes and consequences of phenology shifts for other avian species in response to climate change. The video game-like model, called SCOPE (Simulation of Carry-Over and Phenological Effects), will allow other researchers to simulate real environments and weather patterns and test how these variables affect the behavior of migratory birds. While similar modeling systems have been used to study ecological systems, this project represents the first time it has been used to connect how cyclic events, like migration and nesting, are affected by warmer winters or earlier springs.

More information about the project can be found at