Empty skies? Two-thirds of birds vulnerable to extinction

Birds: Beautiful creatures inherently worthy of wonder, respect, and appreciation. They also deserve our admiration for the many ecosystem services they provide to us: pollinating flowers, planting seeds, cycling nutrients, and devouring insects that we may find to be “pests.”

What’s more: Birds are our sentinels. They are the proverbial “canary in the coal mine” alerting us — if we are paying attention — to environmental degradation and changes that will affect our lives. Birds are good indicators of the health and stability of an ecosystem because they are highly sensitive to environmental change … environmental stresses become evident in bird populations and behavior.

Currently, birds are telling us that climate change is real and that environmental conditions are changing dramatically and rapidly. According to National Audubon Society’s recently released study entitled “Survival by Degrees,” a full two-thirds of North America’s bird species are vulnerable to extinction due to climate change.

Birds are adapted to particular climatic conditions and are sensitive to shifts in such things as temperature, precipitation, and seasonality. Some species, avian and otherwise, will be able to adapt to such changes, others will have to move, and still others — unable to adapt or move — will be either be locally extirpated or go extinct entirely. We are already seeing many avian species shifting their ranges poleward and migrating and laying their eggs earlier in the year in response to climatic changes.

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Migratory species face an especially difficult challenge in the face of climate disruption. It has been found that as birds shift their ranges poleward in response to climate change, 80 percent of European long-distance migrants will see significant increases in the distance and time it takes to travel between breeding and non-breeding grounds, thus increasing the energetic requirements of migration and increasing the risk of mortality from the various challenges experienced in migration.

Additionally, a migrating animal cannot predict environmental changes in its destination based on the conditions of its departure location. A bird leaving early from Central America cannot predict a delayed insect hatch at its destination in the north — and may risk starvation.

For migratory and resident species, climate change is causing mismatches such as this in the timing of phenological events such as migration, flowering, hatching, etc. of many different species that co-evolved over a very long time. Climate change is throwing off the choreography of their interdependence and has the potential to disrupt entire ecosystem functions, on which we humans also depend.

Birds are our sentinels and they are telling us that the climate crisis is happening and it is happening faster than we realize. In order to give birds —and our children — a chance, we need to do two things: 1) Protect the places that we know birds will need both today and in the future, and 2) WORK TOGETHER to reduce the severity of global warming.

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Individuals cannot solve the climate crisis alone; it will take the will of the masses pressuring the governments of the world to take serious and meaningful action to swiftly reach zero emissions and climate drawdown to reverse the current warming trend.

While individual actions alone cannot change much, many individual actions add up to big change and many choices and voices demanding solutions creates a powerful call to action that governments the world over will have to listen to.  

Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Wangari Maathai told the story of the hummingbird who, in the face of a raging wildfire, while all the other animals stared in horror at the fire, went to a stream, sipped up as much water as she could and then flew to the fire to put a drop of water on it. Over and over again she did this while the other animals watched and asked her why she even bothered. Finally she said to them, “I am doing the best I can.”

Let us all be like that hummingbird and encourage others to be like one too!

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Plumas Audubon Society works to protect birds and the habitats they need here in Plumas County. Please consider a year-end donation to help this local non-profit continue to do good work for our avian kin.