Birds Highly Threatened By Climate Change, Report Warns

(Credit: AP/Elaine Thompson)

Let’s say you’re a bird, flying north for the spring. You’ve spent the winter in the southern tip of South America, and on your way to the Arctic, you stop in Delaware Bay to feast on horseshoe crab eggs. Only this time, the eggs aren’t there — warm weather arrived early in Delaware this year, pushing the horseshoe crabs to spawn early. Weakened by your trip, without the energy of the eggs, you can’t make it to the Arctic tundra — a habitat that’s also threatened by a changing climate.

That mismatch of migration time and food and habitat resources is what National Wildlife Federation scientists say is an unusually serious threat to birds, whose reliance on multiple habitats make them uniquely vulnerable to changing temperatures. NWF released a report Tuesday that outlines what climate change means for birds and how their challenges, in turn, affect people — in particular the $1.8 billion game bird hunting and $54 billion wildlife watching industries. The report notes that “changes in timing and missed connections” are some of the key threats facing migratory birds as the climate warms.

Migratory birds depend on certain triggers — often changes in daylight or weather, depending on the species — to know when to migrate, and count on food sources being available to them when they arrive in their destination. In some places, springs are starting earlier — last year’s spring was the earliest ever recorded in the U.S. — and in others, they’re starting later than ever. They’re also starting and stopping, with warm weather followed by bitter cold, which can damage new growth on trees and plants and kill off insects that have already hatched. Many of the insects and flowers that birds eat in the spring hatch and bloom when the weather gets warm, so an early or false spring in one part of the world could mean birds arrive in an area with nothing to eat, which could ultimately harm bird populations.

Higher temperatures are jeopardizing birds’ food sources as well. In Maine, thousands of Arctic tern chicks are starving to death, partly because warming oceans are driving the fish their parents need to feed them to move to colder waters. Arctic terns have declined 40 percent over the last 10 years, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service, and the changing climate is having an effect on the birds’ habitats. The NWF report found that, as temperatures have increased over the past four decades, “177 of 305 species of birds tracked in North America have shifted their centers of abundance during winter northward by 35 miles on average,” with some birds moving more than 100 miles northward. Drought threatens to dry up the habitat of birds who live in wetlands, sea level rise threatens coastal birds, and massive pest outbreaks, like the pine beetle, are damaging the forests that many birds depend on to breed. Game birds, like the sage grouse, are particularly threatened by the increasing frequency of wild fires, as well as diseases such as West Nile Virus, which are projected to expand into higher elevations as the climate warms.

The report comes on the heels of another study, published in the journal PLoS One, that found far more species of wildlife will be highly at risk from climate change than previously estimated, including 41 percent of the world’s bird species.

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9 Responses to Birds Highly Threatened By Climate Change, Report Warns

  1. rollin says:

    Only the last few years have the mergansers and bald eagles hunted fish on a nearby lake in the winter. Previous to that there was always ice most of the winter, up to 20 inches.

    I am seeing a shift in the land bird types also, more of a lower altitude mix of birds rather than the higher mountain type birds.

  2. Mark Belgium says:

    One of my biggest concerns is the sensitivity for ecosystems regarding rapid temperature rise. As a amateur nature photographer I saw in the past decades a devastating decline in biodiversity. Many bird species are gone (larks, swifts,…), also trees are threatened (ash tree). We are aiming to limit global temperature rise to 2°C (mostly talking about it) and the devastation in our biosphere is already epic. Losing the Artic sea ice is huge…but this summer I didn’t see a single butterfly and for me, as a nature photographer, that event is equally huge. I think we are dramatically underestimating the effects of rapid temperature rise on the biosphere. My personal nightmare is that even when we succeed in our 2°C limit, we find out that we destroyed most of life on this once beautiful planet. Our oceans and our forests are hanging on a hanging on a thin thread as we speak (0.8°C and rising the next decades).

  3. Mark Belgium says:

    And when I look at the number of responses on this topic… nobody cares that birds are threatened…the Miami flooding topic is much more important. Well it isn’t.

  4. John McCormick says:

    Mark, great post.

    Here, in Northern VA, it is my Parakeets I hear most of the day.

    It is not that bird sounds here are rare but I do stop and listen when I her that mocking bird. It makes up for the absence of the other bird calls. Losing feathered friends is least noticed but cruel.

    And, yes Miami is a big draw because people are mainly doomsters.

  5. Mark Belgium says:

    Thanks John.
    Here is an example of how sensitive our biosphere is to temperature change.
    Fig trees in tropical rainforests are a major food source for many animals. Most of the wild fig rely on one specific wasp for pollination. Lifespan of these wasps declines when temperature is rising thus threatening the hole ecosystem in that rainforest. The vulnerability of one tiny wasp for temperature rise can destroy a hole ecosystem. How many of these drama’s are happening at this moment?

  6. rollin says:

    Mark, I too have noticed a lack of butterflies in my area. I plant to attract them and used to have dozens at once. Now seeing one or two is about it and oftentimes none. Bee types are way down too and one year almost all insects (other than flies) were absent or near absent.
    This year there are flies, bugs and tons of spiders but not many butterflies. Bats are down too, sometimes see one, used to see many at a time in the evening.

    I attribute it to the West Nile virus and mosquito spraying program. The next state over, not that far away, has plenty of butterflies but they don’t spray most areas.
    Amazingly, I always get quite ill around the time they spray.

  7. kermit says:

    When I first moved into our house in eastern Washington State, we would see hummingbirds twice a year. They don’t live here, but they migrate through, and our garden attracted them. But I don’t think I’ve seen one in ten years now. I think I saw a third species of butterfly last week, which was rather exciting, which makes it more than a little sad. Pretty much we seem to be down to two. At least the pelicans are still migrating through.

    It’s all the sick or dead trees I see on the ranches, farms, vineyards, and yards on my way to work that really disturb me. I will be thinking of something else, then I look right at a line of lombardy poplars or some such in an established group, and half will be dead or nearly so. Still have eagles and various hawks, so far.

  8. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Mark, the assault on life is multiform. In the UK, where the hard Right Tory regime has feverishly obstructed efforts to ban neonicotinoid poisons from destroying honey-bee populations, naturalists have pointed out that these systemic poisons are obliterating other insect types also vital to plant pollination and as food for higher organisms, including birds, to total indifference from the powers-that-be. We have wrought the sixth mass extinction event out of our own greed and hubris, and Nemesis is upon us. I doubt that the rest of Creation will mourn our passing.

  9. Mark Belgium says:

    Mulga, the single fact that bee’s thrive well in city’s compared to bee’s in agricultural area’s should be convincing enough. Fortunately the rest of the EU past the neonicotine ban.But the feeling remains, I share the same feelings as rollin and kermit…witnessing the decline of life around us is like losing an old friend…