Climate change is projected to threaten North American birds

According to a groundbreaking National Audubon Society (NAS) study released earlier this month, data models predict that by the year 2080, more than 50 percent of North American birds studied will lose over 50 percent of their current climatic range. Likewise, by 2050, 30 percent of the beloved 588 species studied will lose over 90 percent of their current living and breeding areas, endangering their survival as species.  

“It’s an urgent message … and if nothing is done to abate this threat, many of the bird species we love could disappear forever,” said NAS chief scientist Dr. Gary Langham.

For both Michigan bird residents and bird lovers, this could mean a drastic shift to the areas the birds now call home.

Michigan is a part of the Mississippi Flyway — the popular “highway” running from the forests of Ontario all the way down to the swamps of Louisiana. Sixty percent of North American bird species fly this route during the change of seasons. For Michigan, the study predicts that in the years between 2000 and 2080 about 30 percent of our state’s species will lose the majority of their winter climatic range, and a stunning 94 percent are predicted to lose the majority of their summer climatic range.

This study procured thousands of observations from volunteer data collectors, or citizen scientists, who enter data into online databases all over the country. Nationwide projects such as the Christmas Bird Count unite bird fans and help spur the collection of data. The study is an example of citizen-science cooperation at its finest.

After three decades of dedicated data collection, scientists were able to determine species’ climatic ranges and how they have changed. Next, scientists used scenarios of greenhouse gas emissions recognized globally in the science community to predict the changes in bird species’ climatic suitability over an 80-year time frame starting in 2000.

“Each bird species is finely tuned to a set of environmental conditions,” said Langham, referring to the specific conditions like temperature, precipitation and changing seasons.  Scientists used data from projects such as the Christmas Bird Count and the North American Breeding Bird Survey to determine the climate suitability for each species. However, when the climate conditions of North America change, there could be a rising question as to whether or not the inhabiting bird species will survive the change in climatic range.

“Any animal will be responding to not just their climate but any part of their habitats, such as water bodies, plants and food sources,” said biology professor Keith Grasman. “Those factors will also respond to climate change, each differently and are also important to consider.”   Indeed, too often it is easy to glance at a headline and accept the science without investigating the rigor of a study.  So how reputable is this study performed by NAS?

“As far as the study’s thoroughness, Audubon is a highly reputable organization,” biology professor Darren Proppe comments. “In addition, they’ve also taken advantage of a collaborative effort between citizens, scientists, and other organizations. So this study is not just of Audubon, but also of citizen scientists.” Proppe brings up the number and quality of people and organizations involved to support the validity of the study.

“It’s not surprising in one sense,” Proppe added. “It’s fitting with the past and current publications. We have known that birds are declining and a lot of species are becoming more scarce. What is perhaps alarming is the dramatic number of species that the study predicted to decline. Over 50 percent of species will lose half of their current range, according to the report. That is extremely high and even higher in some regions.”

The findings of the study show a grim future for our birds if the rate of global warming continues. NAS has also published many interactive graphs and results online for citizens to become more informed.

Photo caption: A new study suggests many of North America’s birds may be threatened by projected climate changes.