The adage about canaries in the coal mine could similarly be applied to the humble sparrow which is being studied to gauge the impact of climate change on birds.
Scientists from Macquarie University in New South Wales are spending 2014 carrying out the Sparrow Project.
A few hundred sparrows were introduced to Australia from England in the 1860s.
They have adapted well to the harsher climate and millions are now thriving as far north as Cape York to Tasmania in the south.
The research team is travelling across the eastern states of Australia studying the variation in sparrows and examining how they have adapted to different climates.
“They’ve actually evolved alongside people over the last 10,000 years,” said lead researcher Professor Simon Griffith.
Professor Griffith said the scientists would measure and weigh the birds as well as take blood samples.
He said this would enable them to look at the DNA which was significant “because evolution occurs through the changes in the DNA across different populations over time.
They’ll be looking for variations in body size and breeding habits.
“Some of the things we’ll be looking at are the capacity to change the size of the eggs or the number of eggs that are laid,” he said.
Just how much capacity birds have to adapt is a critical question in a changing climate.
Southern birds ‘already changing behaviour’
Eric Woehler, from BirdLife Tasmania, said Tasmania’s birds were already changing their behaviour.
“Were starting to see some birds breeding a little bit earlier or a little bit longer in the breeding season so already were starting to see some of these very early signals,” he said.
Northern birds under pressure may be able to migrate southward but Tasmanian birds do not have that option.
Mr Woehler said for that reason the state was becoming a test case for how birds responded to climate change.
“There is only so much southward movement that these birds can undertake, there’s only so much movement up the hillsides, up the mountains before they run out of land,” he said.
Professor Griffith said some species would be able to track changes in the environment and change accordingly.
“We really don’t have a good grasp at the moment of which species are good (at adapting) and which are bad, and what the potential is for species to change.”
Read article at the ABC.