Birds & Climate Change


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What the Birds are Telling Us

Birds are among the most adaptable of wildlife - as long as they can find suitable habitat, they are able to travel substantial distances north, inland, or to higher latitudes. That is one of the things that makes them sensitive environmental indicators - alerting us to ecological disruption, often before it directly affects us. Audubon's new analysis reveals that many species that winter in the U.S. are moving significantly north - strong evidence that global warming is already altering their - and our - environment. However, Audubon's analysis also showed that some birds, including the majority of grassland species, are not following the trend even as temperatures climb. For these species disappearing habitat is taking an enormous toll and leaving them with nowhere to go - even as climate change is altering what habitat remains.

Click on thumbnails to view larger size. All audio is courtesy of Lang Elliot, Nature Sound Studios.

On the Move North
The following are the species for which Audubon's Birds and Climate Change study revealed the greatest northward movement.

Ashok Khosla
Purple Finch: A frequent visitor to bird feeders, this colorful bird, which is frequently confused with the more common House Finch, is an "irruptive species," meaning that it winters far to the south in some winters and farther north in others. As temperatures have increased in recent years, however, the birds have not gone as far south during their irruptions - resulting in overall northward movement of over 433 miles in the last 40 years.

Gary Stolz, USFWS
Wild Turkey: Reintroduction programs and an ability to thrive in human-influenced landscapes like small woodlots near cornfields or grassy fields have yielded increases in the Wild Turkey population throughout its range over the last 40 years. That said, over 400 miles of northward movement over the same period suggests that climate change is another important factor shaping its natural history.

Gus Van Vliet, USFWS
Marbled Murrelet: The Marbled Murrelet is a bird of contrasting needs; it is a seabird, but breeds in both old-growth forests and on rocky slopes. This yellow WatchList species is declining in the southern portions of its range (California, Oregon, and Washington) primarily because of the loss of old-growth nesting habitat; the species also appears to be declining throughout its range. Climate change poses an additional challenge.

Lee Karney, USFWS
Ring-billed Gull: Like most of the large gulls, Ring-billed Gull adapts well to a human-influenced environment; it can frequently be found feeding at municipal landfills. The Ring-bill is not a typical "seagull"; it is more likely than most other large gulls to be found inland, far from any water. Its northward movement of over 350 miles is another sign of its ability to adapt to changes in its environment, including climate change - sometimes at the peril of other less adaptive species, however, as it can often out-compete them for food and habitat.

Dave Menke, USFWS
Red-breasted Merganser: This striking fish-eating duck most often winters in saltwater, but is increasingly found in winter on large bodies of freshwater including the Great Lakes. It is frequently seen foraging in groups. The species' overall northward movement of approximately 317 miles is driving winter populations up in Minnesota, for example, while its numbers in states like Kentucky and Nevada are substantially down over the last 40 years.

Glen Tepke
Spruce Grouse: This grouse of open evergreen forests relies year-round on northern habitat in Canada, Alaska, and the northern edge of the contiguous United States. Spending most of its time on the ground, except in winter when it favors pine or spruce trees, the species dines primarily on pine or spruce needles. With approximately 316 miles of northward movement, it is reported much more frequently by CBC participants in Alaska than was the case 40 years ago, while Montana observers are less likely to see it than in past seasons.

Glen Tepke
Pine Siskin: Like the Purple Finch, the Pine Siskin is both an irruptive species and a feeder bird. Although called Pine Siskin, these birds eat a wide variety of seeds, including seeds from flowers, grasses, and deciduous trees, in addition to seeds from pine and other cones. This species shows approximately 288 miles of northward winter movement - reflected in part in a marked increase in winter numbers in Alaska, while states like Texas, Mississippi and Louisiana are seeing smaller numbers.

James Leupold, USFWS
Fox Sparrow: This large rufous-and-gray sparrow is often seen scratching for seeds on the ground, including around backyard bird feeders during the winter. Its preferred habitat is woods, brushy areas and woody edges. In more recent years it has been reported much more frequently in states like Alaska, Nebraska and Wisconsin, while its numbers are down in Louisiana, Georgia and other southern states - adding up to a northward shift of approximately 288 miles.

Jeremy Yancey
Boreal Chickadee: As the name suggests, the Boreal Chickadee is found primarily in Canada and Alaska, but is also found (less frequently now that it has shifted over 279 miles north) along the northern edge of the contiguous United States in states like Vermont, Michigan, Maine and Minnesota. Like other chickadees, Boreals form winter flocks and visit backyard bird feeders; it is plumper and more brown than gray as compared to the more familiar Black-capped Chickadee.

Dave Menke, USFWS
House Finch: This frequent visitor to bird feeders was formerly found only in the western United States. In the 1940s, it was sold illegally as a cage bird in the East, and many of these birds were released, perhaps so the would-be sellers could avoid arrest. They have been spreading ever since, until the introduced eastern population has now merged with the native western population; overall, this species shows almost 270 miles of northward winter movement.

Nowhere to Go...
The following are a few of the grassland species whose habitat options are dwindling even as temperatures rise.

Ashok Khosla
Burrowing Owl: Unlike most owls, the Burrowing Owl is most frequently seen standing on a raised mound in front of its burrow in the ground or on a low fencepost - often in the middle of a rodent colony - frequently prairie dogs. These owls are usually found in the dry grasslands of the western United States or the sandy grasslands of Florida. Already declining, this species faces the prediction that much of its western habitat will become drier as climate change progresses.

John & Karen Hollingsworth, USFWS
Eastern and Western Meadowlark: These popular robin-sized grassland birds form winter flocks and always feed on the ground. Neither species has been wintering farther north over the past 40 years, probably because the quality of northern grasslands is not sufficient to support these birds through the winter. The Eastern Meadowlark is one of Audubon's Common Birds in Decline; its population has plummeted 72% in population over the last 40 years.

George Jameson
Vesper Sparrow: This species is one of many sparrows found primarily in grassland habitats. Although widespread across the United States and southern Canada in the breeding season and across the southern United States in winter, it is a little-known bird, perhaps because of its drab brown plumage and lack of visits to feeders. Like most grassland birds, it is showing population declines overall and through most of its range, due to loss of habitat to agriculture, urban and suburban growth, and reversion to forest.