Like canaries in cages sent down into freshly dug coal mines, birds are at the forefront of our understanding about how the world’s climate is changing around us, and those changes are being documented by Audubon Society members all around the globe.
Tom Auer, Conservation Data Manager for the National Audubon Society, came to the North Fork last Friday night, April 10, to share the results of the Audubon Society’s recent study, seven years in the making, of how a changing climate is likely to affect birds in North America.
Birdwatchers throughout the world are some of the most dedicated citizen scientists, compiling lists of birds they’ve seen and where they’ve seen them, both on their own and as part of organized efforts like the Audubon Society’s annual Christmas Bird Count.
At a packed house in the Peconic Landing auditorium organized by the North Fork Audubon Society, Mr. Auer said the National Audubon Society approached the project as if they were compiling a field guide to bird ranges of the future, using models that predict precipitation, temperature, the timing of the change of seasons and other factors, known as “bioclimatic variables,” to gauge how bird habitats might change in the future.
They then gauged which of 588 species of birds would be able to live in these new environments, and rated those birds’ odds of survival accordingly.
Birds whose ranges might stay stable or expand due to climate change were rated “climate stable,” while birds whose ranges might shift were listed as “climate threatened.” Birds whose ranges would likely shrink were considered “climate endangered.”
Of those 588 species, Mr. Auer said, 314 would be either threatened or endangered.
On Long Island, he said, 84 species seen here now are climate endangered and 114 are climate threatened.
“We lost nine birds since the industrial age in North America,” said Mr. Auer. “That puts the 314 number in stark contrast. I think this should compel us to act.”
A changing climate could lead to some major population booms. The house wren, for example, could see its population blossom by 575 percent, and the population of the American oystercatcher, which recently began to become a common sight in the Peconic Estuary, could blossom by 1,000 percent.
But the willow flycatcher’s population could shrink by 97 percent, while the American black duck population could decline by 61 percent.
“The yellow warbler could be completely gone from Long Island,” he said.
“But just because the climate space is available, doesn’t mean the habitat space is available,” cautioned Mr. Auer, who said the modeling done so far doesn’t take into account a wide-ranging set of variables surrounding whether there will actually be room for the birds to cohabitate with other birds in their new climate range.
“We’re not sure what habitats will be available. The climate model is only the best possible scenario for the birds,” he said. “In a lot of shifting scenarios, the situation may be more dire.”
A guide to the birds at risk in New York State is online here.
Mr. Auer said it is important for the public to remember that we’re not alone in dealing with the challenges posed by climate change.
“We need to remember we’re working together on this,” he said. “We’re doing a lot to improve the science, and there’ll be opportunities for citizen scientists to evaluate how the predictions are doing.”
Mr. Auer added that birders are in a unique position where they can speak passionately with their government representatives about an issue they care about without it becoming a partisan debate.
“If we can open up a dialogue, we can make some noise on the issue,” he said. “We have people in D.C., but we need 200,000 letters. We need to work from the ground up.”
You can read more of Mr. Auer’s research on his blog here.