A Bird’s Tale

Conserving Birds in the Face of Climate Change

Posted:  Wednesday, October 10, 2018 - 10:00am

The realities of climate change can be more than a little hard to deal with as we experience them and hear of them on a daily basis. That was true again this week when the International Panel on Climate Change released a report providing details about how critical it is that the amount of carbon in the atmosphere is lowered very quickly if we wish to avert some costly and tragic consequences.

Our beloved birds and other parts of the natural word are, of course, highly impacted by the changes in climate that are underway and they are expected to be challenged for survival if the changes continue to magnify.

On the same day that the IPCC report was released, the Boreal Songbird Initiative (the organization that one of us—Jeff—works for) also published a new report that tries to cut through the bad news of climate change. In it, the authors (and yes, one of us—Jeff—is an author on the report) show the positive opportunities for ensuring the survival of birds of the boreal forest of Canada and Alaska in the face of a rapidly changing climate. Fortunately, the solutions to help birds also help keep carbon out of the atmosphere. These solutions also protect other species including threatened animals like woodland caribou and Atlantic salmon.

The report, “Conserving North America’s Bird Nursery in the Face of Climate Change,” summarizes the most up-to-date science that predicts where individual bird species will occur in the future based on different climate scenarios. Using this information, the report then details the three ways in which current land-use planning and conservation will need to proceed in order to give birds the best chance for survival over the next hundred years.

First, birds will need to have healthy populations spread over wide areas today in order to be resilient to  the stresses expected from climate change and be resilient enough to have individuals that can shift their ranges generally northward over the coming decades. Second, birds will need to have suitable, intact habitat in the corridors through which their future populations will be forced to move into as conditions worsen in their current range. Third, certain portions of the range of some birds is projected to remain relatively climactically stable into the future. These areas are termed “climate refugia,” and ensuring as much of the habitat in these climate refugia remains healthy and intact is crucial for the survival of many bird species.

In the report, currently intact areas of boreal forest in Canada and Alaska are mapped and overlaid with current ranges of birds, the landscape corridor through which birds will be forced to move in the future, and projected climate refugia.

It’s probably obvious that large-scale land protection efforts will be needed for the lands in all three categories. The good news is that across Canada’s boreal forest region there are efforts underway, typically led by Indigenous governments and communities to protect many of these critical landscapes. Also good news is that the protections of these areas will help to keep carbon out of the atmosphere and allow forests and peatlands to keep sucking more carbon from the air.

An interesting side note is that although the report focused on areas to the north of Maine, one striking finding is that coastal areas are often climate refugia because being near the ocean moderates the effect of a warming climate—as we all have experienced on hot July days. Coastal Maine may well be important for many birds and other animals and plants as a place of refuge from some climate change impacts in the years ahead—although at the same time it will be facing threats from sea level rise, storm surges, and increased habitat loss and fragmentation from development. We need our leaders to take action on climate change today.

You can read the report at https://www.borealbirds.org/announcements/report-conserving-north-americas-bird-nursery-face-climate-change.

Jeffrey V. Wells, Ph.D., is a Fellow of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Dr. Wells is one of the nation's leading bird experts and conservation biologists and author of “Birder’s Conservation Handbook. His grandfather, the late John Chase, was a columnist for the Boothbay Register for many years. Allison Childs Wells, formerly of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, is a senior director at the Natural Resources Council of Maine, a nonprofit membership organization working statewide to protect the nature of Maine. Both are widely published natural history writers and are the authors of the book, “Maine’s Favorite Birds” and the newly published “Birds of Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao” from Cornell Press.