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Birds & Climate Change: What Birders Should Know

March 27, 2023

The world of birds is rich with diversity, encompassing over 11,000 species that occupy a wide range of habitats across the globe. However, as our planet faces the escalating impacts of climate change, birds are feeling the pressure. In this comprehensive guide, we explore the intricate connection between birds and climate change, delving into how these remarkable creatures are adapting to a changing world, the importance of habitat conservation, and the role that birders and citizens can play in supporting bird-friendly practices. By understanding the challenges that birds face, we can work together to safeguard these fascinating creatures and their habitats for future generations.

1. How Climate Change Affects Birds

(a) Changes in Habitat and Food Sources

As climate change alters ecosystems, bird habitats are affected, leading to changes in the distribution and abundance of food sources. Warmer temperatures can cause shifts in plant communities, which in turn affect insect populations that many bird species rely on for food. To understand the complex interactions between climate change, habitats, and food sources, scientists study various ecosystems, such as Project BudBurst, which monitors phenology (seasonal events) in plants across the United States.

(b) Altered Migration Patterns

Climate change can cause changes in the timing and patterns of bird migration. Warmer temperatures may cause birds to migrate earlier or later than usual, which can affect their breeding success and survival. For example, the Swainson's Thrush has been found to migrate earlier in response to climate change, as documented by a study published in Ecological Applications. This can lead to mismatches between their arrival at breeding grounds and the availability of food resources.

(c) Species Range Shifts

As global temperatures rise, bird species may experience shifts in their geographic ranges. Some species may expand their range northward or to higher elevations, while others may face shrinking or fragmented habitats. This can result in the loss of some species from their traditional ranges, as well as new species colonizing areas where they were previously absent. For example, the Audubon's Climate Report projects that the American Goldfinch's summer range could shift northward by up to 69% by 2080.

Photo by Ellie Burgin:

2. Vulnerable Bird Species and Ecosystems

(a) Arctic and Antarctic Birds

Bird species that inhabit Arctic and Antarctic regions are particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change due to rapid warming and melting of sea ice. For example, the Ivory Gull, a high Arctic species, has experienced significant population declines, as documented in a study published in Ecology Letters. Another example is the Emperor Penguin, which relies on sea ice for breeding; a study in Nature Climate Change predicts that this species could face dramatic population declines due to climate change.

(b) Island and Coastal Birds

Bird species that inhabit islands and coastal areas are at risk from climate change due to rising sea levels, more frequent and severe storms, and changes in food availability. For example, the Black-capped Petrel, a seabird native to the Caribbean, is threatened by habitat loss caused by sea-level rise and coastal development. Conservation organizations, such as BirdLife International, work to protect these vulnerable species and their habitats.

(c) Montane and Alpine Birds

Bird species that inhabit montane and alpine ecosystems are also susceptible to the impacts of climate change, as their habitats may become increasingly fragmented or shift upslope. One example is the Bicknell's Thrush, which breeds in high-elevation spruce-fir forests in the northeastern United States and southeastern Canada. As temperatures warm, suitable habitat for this species is projected to decrease, as shown in a study published in Climatic Change.

3. Climate Change and Bird Diseases

(a) Disease Range Expansion

Climate change may lead to the expansion of disease ranges, exposing bird populations to new pathogens. Warmer temperatures can allow diseases that were once limited by cold weather to spread into new areas. For example, avian malaria has been found to be spreading to higher elevations in Hawaii, as documented in a study published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B. This disease threatens the survival of many native Hawaiian bird species, which have not evolved resistance to the parasite.

(b) Disease Transmission Dynamics

Changes in temperature and precipitation patterns caused by climate change can affect disease transmission dynamics between birds and their parasites or pathogens. These changes can lead to increased disease prevalence, altered host susceptibility, or shifts in disease vectors (such as mosquitoes). Understanding these complex relationships is critical for managing bird populations and conserving biodiversity. Researchers, such as those at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, are studying these relationships to better understand and predict the impacts of climate change on bird diseases.

(c) Implications for Bird Conservation

As bird diseases spread to new areas or increase in prevalence due to climate change, conservation strategies may need to be adapted to protect vulnerable populations. This can include monitoring disease outbreaks, managing habitats to reduce disease transmission, and implementing targeted interventions to reduce the impacts of disease on bird populations. For example, the National Wildlife Health Center conducts research and provides technical assistance to help manage and prevent wildlife diseases, including those affecting birds.

Photo by Visual Exist:

4. Bird Adaptations to Climate Change

(a) Behavioral Adaptations

Some bird species may exhibit behavioral adaptations in response to climate change. This can include changes in nesting or foraging behavior, altered migration routes, or shifts in breeding times. For instance, a study published in Global Change Biology found that some bird species have advanced their laying dates in response to climate change. By understanding how birds adapt to climate change, researchers can better predict their responses and inform conservation efforts.

(b) Physiological Adaptations

Bird species may also develop physiological adaptations to cope with the changing climate. This could involve changes in metabolism, water balance, or heat tolerance. A study published in the Journal of Experimental Biology found that some bird species can adjust their metabolic rates in response to changing environmental conditions, helping them cope with temperature fluctuations. Further research is needed to better understand the extent and limitations of these physiological adaptations in birds.

(c) Evolutionary Adaptations

In some cases, bird populations may undergo evolutionary adaptations in response to climate change, with individuals possessing traits that enable them to cope with the new conditions becoming more prevalent. However, the pace of climate change may outstrip the ability of some species to adapt, leading to population declines or even extinctions. A study published in Science found that the rate of climate change is already outpacing the ability of some birds to adapt to changing conditions, highlighting the urgency of conservation efforts.

5. Citizen Science and Bird Conservation

(a) Monitoring Bird Populations

Citizen science, which involves the participation of non-professional scientists in research projects, can play a crucial role in bird conservation by helping researchers monitor bird populations and track the impacts of climate change. Projects such as the Christmas Bird Count and eBird engage birders in collecting data on bird distribution, abundance, and behavior, providing valuable information for scientists studying the effects of climate change on bird populations. By participating in these projects, birdwatchers can contribute to our understanding of climate change and its impacts on birds.

(b) Climate Watch Program

Another citizen science initiative, Climate Watch, focuses specifically on the effects of climate change on birds. This program, run by the National Audubon Society, enlists volunteers to survey birds within designated areas to help scientists understand how species are responding to climate change. The data collected by volunteers can help researchers identify species at risk and inform conservation strategies to protect birds and their habitats.

(c) NestWatch

Climate change can also affect the breeding success of birds, making it important to monitor nesting activities. NestWatch, a project by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, encourages volunteers to monitor bird nests and report their observations. This information can help researchers understand how climate change affects nesting success, timing, and productivity, ultimately informing conservation actions to protect breeding birds.

Photo by Emilio Sánchez:

6. Climate-Resilient Bird Habitats

(a) Habitat Restoration

Restoring and preserving habitats that are resilient to climate change is an essential strategy for bird conservation. This can include the restoration of wetlands, grasslands, and forests, which can provide important refuges for birds as their habitats change. Organizations such as the National Wildlife Federation promote climate-smart habitat restoration practices, which consider the impacts of climate change on ecosystems and prioritize the restoration of habitats that are most likely to be resilient.

(b) Landscape Connectivity

Maintaining and enhancing landscape connectivity is another important approach to creating climate-resilient bird habitats. As bird species shift their ranges in response to climate change, it is vital to ensure that they can move freely through connected habitats. Conservation organizations, such as The Nature Conservancy, are working to identify and protect vital corridors that enable birds and other wildlife to move between habitats and adapt to changing conditions.

(c) Urban Green Spaces

Urban green spaces can also serve as important refuges for birds as they face the challenges of climate change. Parks, gardens, and other green spaces can provide valuable habitats and resources for birds, even in highly urbanized environments. City planners and residents can help create bird-friendly urban spaces by planting native vegetation, providing nesting sites, and reducing the use of pesticides. Initiatives like the Urban Bird Treaty Program work with cities to promote the conservation of birds in urban areas through habitat improvement, education, and outreach.

7. Reducing Other Human-Related Threats to Birds

(a) Mitigating Window Collisions

As birds face the challenges of climate change, it is important to address other human-related threats that can compound their vulnerability. Window collisions are a major cause of bird mortality, with an estimated 365-988 million birds killed annually in the United States alone, according to a study published in The Condor. By applying bird-friendly window treatments or installing specialized glass, building owners and residents can help reduce this threat to birds.

(b) Minimizing Light Pollution

Artificial light at night can also disrupt bird behavior, particularly for migratory species that rely on celestial cues for navigation. By implementing bird-friendly lighting practices, such as reducing the use of unnecessary outdoor lighting or using shielded fixtures that direct light downward, communities can help minimize the impacts of light pollution on birds. Organizations like the International Dark-Sky Association provide guidance on reducing light pollution for the benefit of birds and other wildlife.

(c) Reducing Plastic Pollution

Plastic pollution poses a significant threat to birds, particularly seabirds that can ingest or become entangled in plastic debris. Reducing plastic waste and supporting policies aimed at minimizing single-use plastics can help protect birds from this threat. Programs such as Ocean Conservancy's International Coastal Cleanup engage volunteers in beach cleanups, which can help reduce plastic pollution and raise awareness about its impacts on birds and other marine life.

8. Supporting Bird Conservation Efforts

(a) Joining Local and National Bird Conservation Organizations

One way to support bird conservation is by joining local or national bird conservation organizations, such as the National Audubon Society or the American Bird Conservancy. These organizations work to protect birds and their habitats through research, advocacy, and on-the-ground conservation efforts. By becoming a member, you can contribute to their work and stay informed about current bird conservation issues.

(b) Advocating for Climate Action

As climate change poses an existential threat to many bird species, advocating for climate action is crucial to their survival. Supporting policies that aim to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, promote renewable energy, and protect ecosystems can help mitigate the impacts of climate change on birds. By contacting your elected representatives, attending public meetings, and engaging with others in your community, you can help raise awareness about the importance of climate action for bird conservation.

(c) Educating and Inspiring Others

Finally, sharing your knowledge about the connection between birds and climate change can help inspire others to take action. By engaging with friends, family, and colleagues, you can help raise awareness about the challenges birds face due to climate change and encourage others to support conservation efforts. Participating in local birdwatching groups, giving presentations, or writing articles about birds and climate change are all ways to contribute to the conversation and promote positive change for birds and their habitats.

In conclusion, understanding the connection between birds and climate change is vital for birders and anyone concerned about the future of our planet's biodiversity. By staying informed about the challenges birds face, supporting bird conservation efforts, and advocating for climate action, we can help protect birds and their habitats for generations to come.