Hundreds of North American bird species are at serious risk from global warming, according to a first-of-its-kind study by the National Audubon Society released Monday.
“It’s a punch in the gut. The greatest threat our birds face today is global warming."
—Gary Langham, National Audubon Society
Audubon scientists used three decades of citizen-scientist observations from the Audubon Christmas Bird Count and the North American Breeding Bird Survey to define the “climatic suitability” for each bird species — the range of temperatures, precipitation, and seasonal changes each species needs to survive. Then, using Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change greenhouse gas emissions scenarios, they mapped where each bird’s ideal climatic range may be found in the future as the climate changes. The research covers Alaska, Canada, and the lower 48 states.
Of the 588 species studied, more than half are likely to be in trouble, the report shows. The Audubon models indicate that 314 species will lose more than 50 percent of their current climatic range by 2080. And of those 314 species, 126 of them are classified as climate endangered — projected to lose more than 50 percent of their current range by 2050. If they are unable to find alternative habitats, they will die out completely.
Among the species at risk: bald eagle, common loon, osprey, piping plover, spotted owl, and trumpeter swan.
“It’s a punch in the gut. The greatest threat our birds face today is global warming," Audubon chief scientist Gary Langham, who led the investigation, said in a statement. “That’s our unequivocal conclusion after seven years of painstakingly careful and thorough research. Global warming threatens the basic fabric of life on which birds — and the rest of us — depend, and we have to act quickly and decisively if we are going to avoid catastrophe for them and for us.”
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As these range shifts occur, birds will be forced to migrate in order to live, feed, and breed. But as Audubon president and CEO David Yarnold writes: "Some birds are projected to lose all of the places where the climate is suitable for breeding habitat — and, by inference, go extinct."
For bird lovers, this litany of ills is alarming. Rampant bird extinctions? Species leaving their home states forever? Still, within that same data lies hope, a fact that the Audubon science team has emphasized to me over and over again. For many species, the model has identified so-called “strongholds”—geographic areas that will offer shelter against the decades-long wave of climate change that is already washing over us. Those strongholds will be the key to many birds’ continued success in North America.
"Audubon’s new science sends a clear message about the serious dangers birds face in a warming world," the report warns. "Protecting them will require both redoubling conservation efforts to safeguard critical habitat and curbing greenhouse gas emissions."