National Audubon Society releases climate change report on bird species

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Hikers in forest preserves around Cook County have likely heard the flute-like song of the wood thrush, but that sound may disappear from Illinois unless communities take action to fight climate change, a new report warns.

The report from the National Audubon Society, “Survival By Degrees: Bird Species on the Brink,” found that about two-thirds of bird species face the significant threat of extinction due to climate change and extreme weather changes.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. The report notes that if action is taken to reduce the root causes of climate change, namely greenhouse gas emissions, then humans can improve the chances of survival for 76% of those species.

“There’s alarm bells,” Nathaniel Miller, acting executive director of the regional office Audubon Great Lakes, said of the report, “but there’s also some positive messages.”

The study resulted from reviewing more than 140 million records detailing 604 bird species and more than 70 data sources, Miller said. Using that data, researchers used internationally recognized climate models, such as Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s models, to determine what would happen to bird species if global temperatures increased by 1.5 degrees Celsius and 3 degrees Celsius.

At a 1.5 degree Celsius increase, 34 bird species would face the risk of extinction, but at 3 degrees Celsius, the study found that 389 bird species would be at risk.

In the Chicago area, grassland and eastern forest birds are most at risk, Miller said. This summer, the city witnessed bird conservation issues in action when a musical festival on Montrose Beach threatened the piping plovers nesting there. In the 1980s, there were just 17 pairs of plovers in the Great Lakes region, but conservation efforts have helped the species start to recover. Now rising lake levels could wipe out the beaches where they lay their eggs.

Humans will be directly affected if bird species disappear from Illinois or drastically change migration patterns, Miller said. The chimney swift, for example, eats mosquitoes, but if the timing of their migration shifts, summers will be teaming with disease-spreading mosquitoes.

“When birds suffer, people do too,” Miller said.

The society also launched a searchable database called the Birds and Climate Digitizer, which gives users a local perspective on how climate change will impact the bird species they see in their backyards, Miller said.

Users can toggle between the two scenarios — 1.5 degrees Celsius and 3 degrees Celsius —to see how big of an impact a few degrees will have on local birds, and they can factor in local threats such as false springs, droughts and rising Great Lake levels.

Chicagoans can take action right away to help bird populations by protecting places where they build nests now and where they might later. Miller notes the Chicago area has an active conservationist community, and conservation advocacy will be vital.

On a wider scale, Miller said major federal policy will be needed to reverse the effects of climate change.

“For birds, he said, “we know we need to invest in their habitat.”

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