College Green Magazine: Another Silent Spring

North American bird populations are disappearing faster than the noticeable climate shifts that seem to be impacting their traditional migration patterns, and it could only get worse over the next 75 years.

According to the National Audubon Society, 314 of 588 North American bird species surveyed over the past three centuries will experience severe climate change impacts within the next 100 years. Climatic threats, including projected changes in temperatures, precipitation, seasonal variations, and greenhouse gas emissions, will directly affect Western hemisphere bird counts by 2020. By 2080, over half of the surveyed populations will have lost over 50 percent of their current climate range, with 126 of these select bird species considered climate-endangered. Losses in climate range could be over 50 percent by the year 2050 for those bird species considered critically climate-endangered.

This report issued by the National Audubon Society is the first of its kind; never before have bird species in one particular hemisphere been as heavily studied and speculated as the birds incorporated in the Audubon’s Birds and Climate Change Report. Thirty years of data collected from bird-count-reservoirs like the Christmas Bird Count and the North American Breeding Bird Survey aided the Audubon Society in constructing this thorough assessment.

Some of the species on the Audubon’s climate short list include the Common Loon (75 percent winter range projection loss by 2080), the Glittering Hummingbird (100 percent winter range projection loss by 2080), and perhaps the most iconic bird in all of the U.S., the Bald Eagle, with a 73 percent current breeding range projection loss by the year 2080. Baird’s Sparrow, Burrowing Owl, Brown Pelican, and Baltimore Oriole bird populations are also expected to experience critical range reductions within the same time frame.

“Nearly half of the bird species in the United States and Canada are seriously threatened by climate change,” Gary Langham, chief scientist at Audubon, said in a video highlighting the report’s significance. “It’s an urgent message.”

Displaced from their current habitats, many bird populations in North America continue to be uprooted by unstable climate changes, as warmer coastal temperatures push these species into unfamiliar places, far from their accustomed breeding grounds. To where these birds will migrate and the impacts these ‘invasive’ populations will have on the already-established ecosystem are a key questions for ornithologists to answer within the coming century.

Globally, bird population numbers are dwindling, as well. According to BirdLife International in an article for National Geographic, “One in eight – more than 1300 species – are threatened with extinction, and the status of most of those is deteriorating.” BirdLife International asserts that close to 200 bird species are currently considered critically endangered, and that number is only rising.

An additional report issued by the North American Conservation Initiative U.S. Committee examines a number of bird species from different habitats. Out of all these varied ecological domains, each habitat experienced noticeable declines except the wetlands, which actually saw an increase in 80 individual bird species counts. Data for the fifth annual “State of the Birds” report incorporated long-term bird population figures back to 1968, or 1974 for shorebird counts, providing an extensive record for which to formulate bird population projections in future.

Some species have been completely removed from the U.S. Endangered Species List due to strict conservation practices and funding from the Endangered Species Act, while others are finding their way on to the red list of animal protection. All 33 native Hawaiian bird populations are now either considered endangered or likely to become endangered in the next century – with others on the path of extinction.

While the Endangered Species Act is beneficial in providing funds for preservation of endangered animal populations, it’s considered an expensive last resort.

“The Endangered Species Act is like the emergency room,” U.S. Fish & Wildlife service Dan Asche said in a recent National Geographic article discussing the threat of bird populations in America. In short, bird conservationists should strive to keep their beloved species from ending up in the emergency room at all costs, according to Asche.

“The Audubon Report tells us two things we need to do right now,” Langham added in the Audubon video. “The first is reduce carbon pollution that causes global warming. And the second is to protect those places that the birds need today and will need in the future.”

Simply by protecting critical habitats in nearby communities for local bird populations and remaining mindful of greenhouse gas emission consumption can aid the efforts in preserving bird species for centuries.

This story also appears on College Green Magazine