Animals depend on certain resources and conditions to survive–food, temperature, and places to raise young, for example. So when climate change alters the balance of their habitats, it’s a problem. They either have to move somewhere that offers what they’re used to, or they need to adapt.
Climate change is set to affect birds as much as any animal, as you can see from a new report from the National Audubon Society. From 588 species studied, the report finds that 53% will lose at least half of the geographic range (the area where the species are normally found) and that 126 species will lose their habitats without any compensating alternative habitat.
“All birds are reliant on climate as the building block on which they can live and thrive on a landscape,” says Audubon’s chief scientist Gary Langham. “When you get these disruptions, it’s bound to cause outright reductions for the species or, at the very least, significant challenges to overcome.”
Take a look at the gifs here, which illustrate what Langham means (yellow represents summer distribution; blue is winter). In the summer months, all three species are forced northwards as they seek out their normal habitats. (The projections are based on a business-as-usual scenario for climate change–i.e. if we continue releasing greenhouse gases at similar rates as today).
The research takes historical bird observation data and puts it into an algorithm that takes account of 17 climate variables. For example, it considers the “minimum winter temperature” for each species (the temperature birds need for survival) as well as factors like rainfall.
The Chestnut-collared Longspur, which breeds in the grasslands of Canada and northern United States, is an example of a bird that could be most affected by climate change. “This is one of those species where the climate change is largely shrinking to nothing by the end of the century,” Langham says. “And to make matters worse, it also breeds in the Bakken Shale area, where the oil and gas boom is happening. It’s ironic that the ultimate cause of this is circling back to affect them and further disrupting their fragile remaining habitat.”
But can’t birds just adapt to new surroundings? Langham says maybe, but in a lot of cases, probably not. Take the Bobolink, a popular bird in the Mid-West. It’s used to the rural grassy, heartland of America, not the boreal forests of Canada, where it would have to move.
Audubon hopes that the research will underscore the urgency of climate change and help prepare possible future habitats for birds, if that’s necessary. But Langham says even if birds aren’t your thing, you should take notice anyway.
“The same things birds rely on, people rely on. When we take care of birds, we also provide clean air and water. If you’re not interested in birds, you can still think of them as a harbinger for the future.”