Climate change threatens migratory birds and bird-dependent economy, NWF warns

Bicknell's Thrush on East Mountain. Photo by Steve Faccio. Used with permission from the Vermont Center for Ecostudies

Bicknell’s thrush on East Mountain. Photo by Steve Faccio. Used with permission from the Vermont Center for Ecostudies

A report released this month by the National Wildlife Federation details widespread and dramatic changes in bird populations as a result of climate change.

“The evidence is now overwhelming that climate change is the most pervasive and long-term threat to bird populations here and across the world,” said Jeff Wells, a senior scientist with the Boreal Bird Initiative. Wells spoke, along with two other bird biologists, in a telephone news conference Monday sponsored by the National Wildlife Federation to discuss the report, entitled “Shifting Skies: Migratory Birds in a Warming World.”

Many changes have already occurred, including the loss of Bicknell’s thrush from Mount Greylock in Massachusetts and the arrival of black vultures, a formerly southern species, in Vermont. Other changes are predicted, like the loss of the saltmarsh sparrow and the possibility that black-capped chickadees might be found only in northernmost Maine and Canada before long.

It’s not just the birds that will be affected. Birding and hunting translate into business. Bird-lovers spend $54 billion a year in the United States, including $4 billion on birdseed, according to the new report. Game bird hunters spend nearly $2 billion a year.

According to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, of the more than 1,000 bird species in the U.S., a third are threatened, endangered or of conservation concern. Roughly 350 species are migratory, which makes them especially vulnerable to climate change.

According to Wells, migratory birds are arriving at their breeding grounds in the U.S. an average of two weeks earlier than they did 50 years ago. The bird species that migrate further are arriving only a few days earlier than they used to. This may sound promising, except that the timing is essential for their survival. Plants are flowering and fruiting earlier, insects are hatching earlier and the result is that some birds arrive late to the table and can’t feed their young enough to survive.

One example of this dislocation is the Atlantic puffin. These black and white birds that nest in burrows on the rocky islands along the Maine coast were brought back only recently from the brink of extinction. Yet last year puffin breeding success fell to less than half of what it had been because their preferred fish disappeared due to warming seas. Instead, parent puffins tried to feed their young the only available fish, which was too big for the baby puffins to swallow.

“We’ve lost between 20 and 50 percent of boreal species which previously bred in Vermont,” Galbraith said.

Sea level rise is another serious problem for birds. Pam Hunt, a senior scientist at New Hampshire Audubon, said scientists predict sea level to rise 3 feet by the end of this century. This will affect birds that rely on coastal marshes and beaches, like the saltmarsh sparrow and the piping plover.

Salt marshes are highly productive ecosystems that support many species of birds. According to Hunt, if sea level rise was gradual, the salt marshes would have time to migrate inland. But the rise is rapid and salt marshes are hemmed in by highways and cities, so they are stuck between what Hunt called “a rock and a wet place.”

Piping plovers, a federally threatened species, nest on beaches. As sea level rises, they’ll lose beach area, but they’ll also become more vulnerable to storms that will flood and even wipe out their habitat.

Ruby-throated hummingbirds, which complete an astonishing annual migration across the Gulf of Mexico in one unbroken flight, will also be affected. They are the East’s only hummingbird, though rare visitors from the West pop in occasionally. In Massachusetts, ruby-throated hummingbirds arrived an average of 18.4 days earlier over a 30-year period. According to Wells, the relationship between these iridescent birds and the flowers they depend on for food is unclear, but it’s possible that the mutual dependence of hummingbirds and flowers could be coming unhinged.

“We’re moving into uncharted territory, relationships we didn’t know existed,” said Wells.

One serious concern for ruby-throated hummingbirds is the increase in hurricane intensity as they cross the Gulf of Mexico. A hummingbird’s chance of survival in a hurricane might be worse than an ice cube’s chance in hell.

Hector Galbraith, Northeast regional scientist for the National Wildlife Federation, is especially concerned about migratory species like the ruby-throated hummingbird. “Many of those migratory species are possibly even more vulnerable than the less migratory species because they integrate at a global scale all of the different aspects of climate change rather than just one regional aspect.”

One example of this vulnerability is the Bicknell’s thrush. This brownish relative of the American robin, with a buff-colored breast with black streaks, nests in spruce-fir forest above 2,700 feet. As these trees die off in the lower elevations and in the southern regions of New England, the bird has fewer places to breed. A temperature increase of 5 to 6 degrees Fahrenheit in July, which current trends in greenhouse gas pollution are headed for, could wipe out 90 percent of the Bicknell’s thrush habitat in the U.S. According to Hunt, under some models the only habitat left for this thrush by the end of the century will be on Mount Katahdin in Maine and the Presidential Range in New Hampshire.

“People will drive from all over the U.S. or fly to Boston to go look for Bicknell’s thrush in the White Mountains because it’s fairly accessible,” said Hunt. Hunt’s point is that aspects of the regional economy depend on birds — puffin tourism, boreal bird tourism — and the prognosis is not good.

Worse, the thrush is susceptible to climate change at the other end of its migration in the Caribbean, where droughts are predicted to become more severe.

Galbraith is concerned about other iconic boreal bird species, too, whose ranges are contracting northward.

Galbraith is worried that “Somewhere out there in the future there’s going to be a catastrophic threshold. We cross that threshold and we will see these losses and these changes accelerating, becoming exponential.”

“We’ve lost between 20 and 50 percent of boreal species which previously bred in Vermont,” Galbraith said.

At the same time, southern species are moving northward into New England. Galbraith has seen red-bellied woodpeckers increase from one pair in Massachusetts 25 years ago to hundreds or thousands of the birds across New England today. Black vultures, previously found no farther north than New Jersey, have moved northward by nearly a thousand miles.

“So doesn’t it all wash out in the end?” asked Galbraith. “I don’t think so, because most of the species which are spreading from the south are generalist species. They can survive in a wide variety of habitats. The species that we’re losing, the boreal species, are specialist species.”

Galbraith went on, “It’s not the case that the birds coming up from the south are simply replacing the birds that are contracting to the north. … As far as I’m concerned, this is a net loss.”

As bad as the current state of affairs sounds, there’s worse to come. “Don’t forget we’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg, no pun intended,” said Galbraith. “So far, temperatures in New England have risen by about 2 or 3 degrees in the last 50 years. We’re expecting, even under the more conservative projections, we’re expecting another 4, 5, 6, 7 degrees.”

Galbraith is worried that “Somewhere out there in the future there’s going to be a catastrophic threshold. We cross that threshold and we will see these losses and these changes accelerating, becoming exponential.”

For the three scientists speaking in the telephone news conference, the solutions are clear, even if the political path to them is not. “We need to reduce carbon pollution, we need to invest in clean energy and energy efficiency, and we need to also think about protecting and restoring forests, wetlands, and other natural habitats that absorb and store carbon and that are important arks for these species into the future,” said Wells.

“We are seeing changes and that is for sure,” said Galbraith. “But if we don’t get our act together, we are going to see some major changes in the future which will make the changes that we’ve already observed look pretty penny ante. So we cannot afford to say, ‘oh, well, game’s over, we may as well just live with it’.”

Audrey Clark

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17 Comments on "Climate change threatens migratory birds and bird-dependent economy, NWF warns"

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2 years 11 months ago
Despite these articles, it appears that most of the recent science coming out on climate indicates that global warming is not happening, and climate change does not appear to be linked to the reasons previously touted. See this recent interview in Der Spiegel with climate scientist Hans von Storch… http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/interview-hans-von-storch-on-problems-with-climate-change-models-a-906721.html “Climate experts have long predicted that temperatures would rise in parallel with greenhouse gas emissions. But, for 15 years, they haven’t. In a SPIEGEL interview, meteorologist Hans von Storch discusses how this “puzzle” might force scientists to alter what could be “fundamentally wrong” models. This series of articles by Audry… Read more »
2 years 11 months ago
Michael, check out the solar CLOUD experiments they’re doing at CERN. But, as I said, the question is how much human impact is there really on our climate. Let’s break it down between 100% and 0%. Let’s be generous and say human activity is responsible for 25% of the changes that occur. Of that 25%, what percentage of that activity can we as a species actually alter or eliminate to the point where we will have an appreciable impact on our global climate. Based on past evidence (and, as I said, barring the mass murder of billions of people) it’s… Read more »
2 years 11 months ago

The status quo will not suffice (unless of course you can show me a fully functional completely fleshed out plan that says otherwise).

I for one take the scientific consensus seriously. I also take basic physics seriously. I care.

2 years 11 months ago
Rama, why won’t the status quo suffice? Warming trends in history have generally proven to be economic and cultural boom times. Vermont would likely do very well in a warmer world. Longer growing season for our organic agriculture. Wider variety of foods to grow. Longer summer tourist season (which is actually stronger than our winter season). Comparatively, a much more attractive climate than many competing states… A fleshed out plan? Since when has the human race ever had a fleshed out plan for adapting to changing times and conditions. It is an organic process. Our species ability to adapt is… Read more »
2 years 11 months ago
“I say continuing research into renewables, promoting energy efficiency and reducing waste are all legitimate ways to help mitigate human impact on the environment. That is what MY scientists claim is best.” I agree wholeheartedly. But “researching” renewables is not the same as forcing people to buy them. “Promoting” energy efficiency is not the same as mandating costly regulations on people, and, as for reducing waste, who isn’t in favor of that? As for “The people whose lives are being or will become disrupted by mans impact on the environment”, I think more people’s lives are being disrupted by efforts… Read more »
John Greenberg
2 years 11 months ago
1) Robert Roper cites a Der Spiegel interview as evidence that “most of the recent science coming out on climate indicates that global warming is not happening, and climate change does not appear to be linked to the reasons previously touted.” In fact, the article says nothing of the kind. Micheal Stevens has already cited the take-home summary quote below, so I won’t repeat it. But here are more excerpts from the interview: “SPIEGEL: What could be wrong with the models? Storch: There are two conceivable explanations — and neither is very pleasant for us. The first possibility is that… Read more »
2 years 11 months ago
You are, I think willfully, ignoring the crux of the issue here. You can talk all day about scientists and consensuses and this that and the other thing, but can any of you show me a plan for dealing with climate change that says, “If we do X, the result will be Y, and the cost of doing X is Z.” The plan as it exists in Vermont is to go to 90% renewables by 2050. This will require MASSIVE use of land resources for energy generation. Hundreds of miles of ridge lines. Thousands of acres of solar panels. Uncompetitive… Read more »
2 years 11 months ago
Robert, Vermont’s SPEED program for projects less than 2.2 MW is an example of a heavily-subsidized RE solution advocated by Klein/Cheney & Co. Generation cost: 2010, 6 months @ 13.87 c/kWh 2011 @ 16.44 c/kWh 2012 @ 17.16 c/kWh 2013, 5 months @ 18.53 c/kWh What will the numbers be in 2017? Excess payment above NE grid prices are ballooning out of control: 2010, $506,871 2011, $2,204,334 2012, $3,423,473 2013, $6,118,780 projected 2014, $10,700,388 projected 2015, $18,695,757 projected 2016, $32,637,890 projected 2017, $56,932,566 projected Cumulative $131,220,058, all of it rolled into electric rates http://vermontspeed.com/speed-monthly-production/ http://vermontspeed.squarespace.com/project-status/ 1) Annual avg c/kWh is… Read more »
John Greenberg
2 years 11 months ago
Robert Roper needs to make up his mind. He argues that I am: “willfully, ignoring the crux of the issue here,” and goes on to demand that I show him “a plan for dealing with climate change that says, “If we do X, the result will be Y, and the cost of doing X is Z.” But in remarks to Rama Schneider above, he wrote: “Since when has the human race ever had a fleshed out plan for adapting to changing times and conditions … To think that a plan is desirable or even possible is silly.” So which is… Read more »
2 years 11 months ago
Robert Roper needs to make up his mind. He argues that I am: “willfully, ignoring the crux of the issue here,” and goes on to demand that I show him “a plan for dealing with climate change that says, “If we do X, the result will be Y, and the cost of doing X is Z.” But in remarks to Rama Schneider above, he wrote: “Since when has the human race ever had a fleshed out plan for adapting to changing times and conditions … To think that a plan is desirable or even possible is silly.” If we are… Read more »
John Greenberg
2 years 11 months ago
Robert Roper makes many points, but I want to respond to just 3 of them: 1) First, he suggests that the unhindered free market will sort everything out. To this, I would make 3 replies: a) There is no such thing as an unhindered free market; it’s a fictional notion with no counterpart in the real world. In particular, US energy markets have been heavily impacted by government policies since the beginning of the republic. (See http://www.dblinvestors.com/documents/What-Would-Jefferson-Do-Final-Version.pdf for some fascinating history and statistics) If ALL subsidies could really be eliminated, if tax policies had NO impact on business decisions, if… Read more »
Lance Hagen
2 years 11 months ago
Immaterial to Mr. Greenberg’s lengthy rebuttal to Mr. Ropers’s comments on the Spiegel article, the main point is that climate scientists, Hans von Storch being just one, are now doing some serious ‘back peddling’ on the predictive capability of the existing climate models. In the last official IPCC report, AWG was tagged as the primary driver in climate change. Now that the actual temperatures have deviated from the model predictions (latest is that, the actual temperature is outside the models 95% confidence limit), they are now hinting that the climate sensitivity to CO2 is only 1/3 less than earlier predictions.… Read more »
2 years 11 months ago

Robert,
“Climate experts have long predicted that temperatures would rise in parallel with greenhouse gas emissions. But, for 15 years, they haven’t”

Another interesting development is, since 1979 when satellite measurements became available, the computer-based temperature prediction models have predicted a greater world average temperature increase than measured by satellites. These models may be flawed.

2 years 11 months ago
Robert, Here is a URL which shows the impact of various factors affecting global warming by Dr. S. Fred Singer, atmospheric physicist Professor Emeritus of Environmental Sciences at the University of Virginia, and former director of the US Weather Satellite Service. http://www.geocraft.com/WVFossils/greenhouse_data.html Water vapor (not droplets, as in clouds) CO2 Methane N2O Misc. gases Water vapor is by far the largest driver of global warming. Of the total solar energy intercepted by the earth, about 30% is reflected into space, the rest, absorbed by Earth’s atmosphere, oceans and land masses, is approximately 3,850,000 exajoules (EJ) per year. In 2002, this… Read more »
2 years 10 months ago
Robert, Here is an article by Dr. S. Fred Singer, atmospheric physicist Professor Emeritus of Environmental Sciences at the University of Virginia, and former director of the US Weather Satellite Service. He likely knows more about Environmental Sciences than most of the commenters on VTDigger. http://www.drroyspencer.com/2013/06/still-epic-fail-73-climate-models-vs-measurements-running-5-year-means/ And here is the magnified graph. It shows the predicted average world average temperature rise of 73 climate models to be 1.3 C for the 1979-2012 period, but the much more accurate satellite and balloon measurements show a WAT rise of only 0.25 C for the same period, even though atmospheric CO2 increased. The… Read more »
Kristin Sohlstrom
2 years 11 months ago
Out of 100% of global warming, what is the current PERCENTAGE caused by human activity? Isn’t it the very nature of climate to change? How did we get from the Ice Age to where we are today without global warming and when is that exactly supposed to stop? How do you know? Why is Bill McKibben given celebrity status for being merely an activist and not a scientist? Why are people being kicked out of and displaced from their homes in Uganda over carbon credits…don’t all humans exhale C02? Why is VT so behind the science regarding the earth’s climate?… Read more »
2 years 11 months ago

Kristin,

You keep asking questions like that and next thing you know the NSA will have you under surveillance.

The Climate Change/Global Warming folks had taken their religion-like zeal to new heights, but as more data is gathered that does not support such zeal, they will tone down their mantras.

The build-outs of RE to “fight GW” may do more harm than good.

Here are some articles for information.

http://theenergycollective.com/willem-post/83704/reduce-co2-and-slow-global-warming

http://theenergycollective.com/willem-post/107316/global-warming-coal-combustion-and-sea-level-rise

http://theenergycollective.com/willem-post/151031/global-warming-targets-and-capital-costs-germany-s-energiewende

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