Flight Change: A Journey to the Future of Birds

Technology is moving at such a fast pace, it can make your head spin. But, with all the hi-tech gadgets and gizmos, we have yet to invent a time machine (although my own daughter would like to invent one!). Fortunately, science allows us to glimpse into the future. Unfortunately, that future does not look promising for birds.

More specifically, three future time periods—2020, 2050, and 2080—look dim, according to projections from the National Audubon Society bird and climate report. The report’s findings detail how climate change could affect the ranges of 588 North American birds species and where each bird species’ ideal range may be in these specific years.

You may be wondering, how could anyone try to predict the future of birds? Turns out, the National Audubon Society has decade’s worth of citizen-science observations from their Christmas Bird Count (and others) and utilized this data to determine what it labels “climate suitability” for each bird species. This term includes factors such as temperatures, precipitation, and seasonable changes that are needed for each to survive.

Next, they used internationally recognized greenhouse gas emission scenarios to map where each bird species’ ideal climate range would be found in the future. The results are discouraging. According to the National Audubon Society, more than half of the species are likely to be in trouble, with 314 losing more than 50 percent of their current climatic range by 2080. Birds such as the bald eagle, brown pelican, burrowing owl, common loon, and Baltimore oriole are some of the species identified as being in greatest danger.

Let’s look at an example in the U.S., the Allen’s Hummingbird. They breed on the Pacific coast along California and Oregon. According to models, this bird’s range could dramatically reduce, with a 68 percent loss by 2050. And by 2080, it could lose 93 percent of its breeding range. What might this mean for the Allen’s Hummingbird? Having to move to new, unchartered territory could involve lack of food, additional predators, and less than ideal climates for survival.

Imagine if scientists determined humans could only survive on half the earth’s land within 65 years? Or if your state or country was suddenly halved in size? While the clock is ticking for us all on climate change, it could be even faster for our friends in flight.
Keep in mind, this specific study only covered Alaska, Canada, and the lower 48 states. But there is additional data pointing to similar problems in every corner of the globe. Frankly, it’s overwhelming. Many migrating birds—as well as other migrating species such as bats, dolphins, and turtles—are mistiming their migratory pattern, making them vulnerable to heat waves, drought, and cold snaps. According to The Climate Institute, the most concerning fact is when species abandon their migration altogether. For instance, cranes are starting to spend the winter in Germany, rather than moving south to Spain or Portugal. Scientists fear in cases like this, a single severe weather event could decimate entire populations.

For more detail on the U.S. findings, the National Audubon Society website has comprehensive range maps—each one an animated guide to where a particular species could find the climate conditions it needs to survive in each of the three future time periods. These graphics are pretty incredible, and the site also provides specific guidelines on interpreting these maps. Not quite a time machine, but definitely a window to the future.

Scientists agree birds are indicators of our environmental health, and predictors of change. Let’s figure out what we can do to answer their call.

Take Action
Fortunately, there ARE things we can do to help! And the National Audubon Society is amazing about providing a wealth of information, resources, and tips to help us save the birds.

• Create a bird friendly yard—Help create the right conditions for birds by growing native plants, using fewer pesticides, and installing bird baths. Consider helping make local school yards and parks bird friendly as well.

• Get involved in your local Audubon’s important bird area (IBA) program (for U.S. residents)—This program identifies and conserves areas that are vital to birds and biodiversity.

• Support anything that lowers greenhouse gas emissions and encourages clean energy—This can be anything from changing your own habits (carpooling, etc.) to talking to your local politicians about climate change.

• Citizen science—Investigate any bird-related citizen science programs in your area that you can participate in. It’s fun, educational, and helps scientists and ultimately creatures!

• Research—Our discussion here barely scratches the surface of bird migration and climate change! If you are interested, please read more about it and spread the word to your friends and family.


National Audubon Society and the Audubon Climate Report (site includes a video explaining migration ranges)
The Climate Institute
-By Elaine DeSimone

***Photos courtesy of Amaya Perez***