What Climate Change Means for Birds

It’s no secret that wildlife are losing their habitats and resources due to climate change. These two words hover above us like a bad omen. Not to mention human expansion: it’s hard leaving ourselves out from the equation. Since the Industrial Revolution, human activity has increased CO2,  thereby creating a warming effect. What does climate change mean for birds that rely on fragile habitats and age-old migration patterns? If you’re already seeing variations in bird behavior, you’re not alone. According to Audubon‘s recent Birds and Climate Change Report, 60% of 305 bird species found in the North American are altering their flight northward by an average of 35 miles, as the atmosphere and oceans continue warming.

A large number of birds flying together.

Red Knots are seeing their main source of food, horseshoe crab eggs, depleted by fishing and harvest along the Mid-Atlantic coast. [Image: www.flickr.com/photos/usfwsnortheast/]

Some of our favorite birds are showing signs of distress under our new system of global warming. Birds are facing depleting forests, grassland and other habitats corrupted by hydro-fracking. Add to that, the stress of climate adaptation. The Audubon report analyzed over 40 years of data and 588 North American bird species, finding clues that show grim realities upsetting the natural balance.

Audubon Society representing birds at the People's Climate March against climate change [Image: www.twitter.com]

Audubon Society representing birds at the People’s Climate March, which drew 400,000 protesters to NYC on September 21. [Image: www.twitter.com]

Using international greenhouse emission samples, Audubon has created maps predicting each bird’s ideal climatic range in the future. These maps can be used for conservation efforts. Citizen-scientist observations also point to what temperatures, precipitation, and seasonal changes birds will need to survive.

For those that say climate change just means birds will have to travel farther up north, possibly to higher elevation– this is not a clear-cut survival plan. At least 314 at-risk-species not only face changing their movement, but also low survival numbers, due to habitat loss or inhospitable areas. What if there are no alternative habitats?

Oil-covered pelican just off the Gulf of Mexico

Aftermath of the BP oil spill. Near the Gulf of Mexico.  [Image: AP Photo/Gerald Herbert allisonkilkenny.files.wordpress.com]

Some at-risk species include the Hooded Oriole, Bald Eagle, and Spotted Owl. The Mississippi Kite will lose 88% of its current summer range by 2080, meaning it won’t be living within its home state. It is predicted that the Black-billed Magpie found in California, which usually nests in small colonies will lose 80% of it summer range and 100% of its winter range by 2080 due to climate change. Though these magpies prefer mature oaks, it may not be possible to find them up north, and forest growth can’t fix the problem quickly enough.

Map showing birds spending winters higher up north.

A past study showing changes in migration patterns. [Image: www.neotropicalbirding.files.wordpress.com]

Then there’s the Cerulean Warbler, the tiny blue birds who love nesting in the treetops. They can be found in the deciduous forests of West Virginia, North Carolina, and Virginia. Their numbers are declining at an alarming rate. The warblers’ winter habitat in the Northern Andes is being invaded by coffee plantations, and its summer home in eastern North America (Appalachia region) is being taken by coal mining and residential development. But all is not lost, the Appalachian Regional Reforestation Initiative (ARRI) is working to restore forest areas on once mined land. So far, they have taken part in the planting of 60 million trees on about 87,000 acres, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

American Kestrel sitting on a branch.

American Kestrel nesting areas continue to lessen in northeastern U.S. due to clearing of trees for farming. [Image: www.birdingisfun.com]

In the long-term, birds will need to adapt to changes in climate and habitat by finding new migration patterns, resources, and habitats. Only those birds that adapt within these stressful conditions will survive. But it is also through curving our consumption and living sustainably that we can lessen the speed at which climate change is accelerating, and save our birds from extinction.

A guy and a girl holding an earth globe.

The symbolic gesture of our planet at the People’s Climate March. [Image: Cynthia Via]

Want to help conservation efforts? Some parks offer bird conservation events and programs. Check out our Pocket Ranger® mobile Apps to find a park with great bird watching near you. To document your findings or bird rarities, use the new, Pocket Ranger Bird Feed™ App.

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