Tag Archives: birds

Reason to chirp: Audubon announces annual Christmas Bird Count

For the 117th year, the National Audubon Society is organizing its annual Christmas Bird Count. Between Dec. 14 and Jan. 5, tens of thousands of bird-loving volunteers — citizen scientists — will participate in counts across the Western Hemisphere.

The data continues to contribute to one of only two large existing pools of information notifying ornithologists and conservation biologists about what conservation action is required to protect birds and the places they need.

The Christmas Bird Count is the longest-running wildlife census in the world.

Each individual count takes place in a 15-mile-wide circle and is led by a compiler responsible for organizing volunteers and submitting observations to Audubon.  Within each circle, participants tally all birds seen or heard that day — not just the species but total numbers to provide a clear idea of the health of that particular population.

“It’s never been easier to be a citizen scientist and it’s never been more important to be one,” said David Yarnold, president and CEO of the National Audubon Society. “Birds and the people who watch them are noticing changes. Using the data gathered by more than a century of Christmas Bird Counts, Audubon will keep protecting birds and the places they need. I’m incredibly proud of the volunteers that contribute to this tradition.”

Christmas Bird Count data have been used in more than 200 peer-reviewed articles, including Audubon’s landmark Birds and Climate Change Report, which found that more than half of the bird species in North America are threatened by a changing climate.

When combined with other surveys such as the Breeding Bird Survey, it provides a picture of how the continent’s bird populations have changed in time and space over the past hundred years.

The long term perspective is vital for conservationists, informing strategies to protect birds and their habitat, and helps identify environmental issues with implications for people as well.

Last year, the 116th Christmas Bird Count included a record-setting 2,505 count circles, with 1,902 counts in the United States, 471 in Canada and 132 in Latin America, the Caribbean, Bermuda and the Pacific Islands.

In total, 76,669 observers in 2015 tallied up 58,878,071 birds representing 2,607 different species — about one-quarter of the world’s known avifauna. About 5 percent of the North American landmass was surveyed by the Christmas Bird Count.

“From Alaska’s Arctic coast to Tierra del Fuego, and from Newfoundland to Los Angeles, the 117th CBC is a tradition that everyone can participate in,” said Geoff LeBaron, Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count director. “Adding observations to more than a century of data helps scientists and conservationists observe trends that will help make our work more impactful.”

A disturbing finding from last year was the continued decline of the Northern Bobwhite, the only native quail in the eastern United States. Record low numbers of this species were observed from the Midwestern states to the Mid-Atlantic and down to Florida.

Meanwhile the Eurasian Collared-Dove, introduced to the Bahamas in the 1970s from its native Europe, was observed in record high numbers from North Carolina throughout the Midwest and northward to the Great Lakes and southern Canada.

These two species are of great concern as Audubon embarks on its 117th count.

Beginning on Christmas Day in 1900, Frank M. Chapman, founder of Bird-Lore — which evolved into Audubon magazine — proposed a new holiday tradition that would count birds during the holidays rather than hunt them.

Conservation was in its beginning stages in that era, and many observers and scientists were becoming concerned about declining bird populations. So began the Christmas Bird Count. 117 years later, the tradition continues and still manages to bring out the best in people.

The Audubon Christmas Bird Count is a citizen science project organized by the National Audubon Society. There is no fee to participate and the quarterly report, American Birds, is available online.

Counts are open to birders of all skill levels and Audubon’s free Bird Guide app makes it even easier to chip in.

On the Web

For more about the Christmas Bird Count, go online to www.christmasbirdcount.org.

 

Invasive snail blamed for hundreds of bird deaths on the Mississippi

An invasive snail is being blamed for the deaths of hundreds of waterfowl on the Mississippi River.

Close to 1,000 dead coot and lesser scaup have been found washed up on the shores near Genoa since October.

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the birds are believed to have an intestinal parasite found in faucet snails, which are a food source for waterfowl.

The parasite, called trematodes, can infect the birds and cause death within three to eight days, the La Crosse Tribune reported.

“They basically came in and basically out-competed native snails,” said Roger Haro, associate dean of University of Wisconsin-La Crosse’s College of Science and Health. “They’ve been around for a while but they never caused a detectable problem with waterfowl.”

Since the arrival of the snail, the bird deaths have been occurring annually for the past 15 years.

Faucet snails were first discovered in the early 2000s in Lake Onalaska, and are now growing on the river between La Crescent and McGregor, Iowa.

The National Wildlife Health Center said there are no reported health risks from handling or consuming the infected waterfowl, however hunters are still advised to wear gloves. Haro said the infected birds don’t appear to threaten other species.

“It’s kind of a jolting thing for people to see all these dead birds,” Haro said. He added that he and other university scientists continue to study the snails’ behavior and the effects of temperature variations on their growth.

Foundation gifts boost Wisconsin conservation efforts

Foundation grants of $1,000 to dozens of community efforts in Wisconsin will boost prairie restoration and shoreline revitalization, wildlife festivals and eco celebrations.

The Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin in mid-November awarded $28,370 to 30 applicants through the C.D. Besadny Conservation Grant Program. Projects range from restoring rare and important landscapes to improving understanding of natural resources through mobile technology.

“Using $1,000 or less, each of these 30 grant recipients will help protect critical wildlife habitat, restore native landscapes, connect people to Wisconsin’s natural wonders, and implement many other projects that will have a lasting impact on our natural resources,” said Caitlin Williamson, the foundation’s program and development coordinator.

A sampling of the grant awards:

  • 1000 Islands Environmental Center for Eagle Days on the River in Kaukauna, Outagamie and Calumet counties.
  • City of Superior for International Migratory Bird Day Celebration in Superior and Douglas County.
  • Covenant Harbor for a nature center in Lake Geneva, Walworth County.
  • Driftless Area Land Conservancy for habitat improvement in Dodgeville, Iowa County.
  • Eagle School of Madison for biodiversity surveys in Fitchburg, Dane County.
  • Friends of High Cliff State Park for tree replacement in Sherwood, Calumet County.
  • Friends of Lapham Peak for invasive species removal in Delafield, Waukesha County.
  • Friends of the Bird Sanctuary for the Barrens Festival in Douglas County.
  • Kishwauketoe Nature Conservancy for Kishwauketoe prairie and savanna restoration in Williams Bay, Walworth County.
  • Madison Audubon Society for connecting students with nature in Madison, Dane County.
  • Neighborhood House of Milwaukee for nature center stewardship in Milwaukee County.
  • Northland College for assessing the wildlife on Madeline Island in Ashland County.
  • Upham Woods for shoreline restoration in Wisconsin Dells, Adams, Columbia, Juneau and Sauk counties.
  • UW Arboretum for habitat restoration of Faville Prairie State Natural Area in Madison.
  • Wisconsin Land+Water for Wisconsin Envirothon in Rosholt, Portage County.
  • Allen Centennial Gardens for an Education a la Cart program in Madison, Dane County.

The grants help organizations create new ways to promote conservation in changing times, said Sara Vega, of Allen Centennial Gardens, whose program is intended to teach lessons about pollinators.

Grant recipients must match the award dollar-for-dollar — either with funds or in-kind services. To date, the foundation has awarded more than $475,890.00 to more than 593 projects in every county in Wisconsin since its inception in 1990.

On the Web

Learn about the Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin online at wisconservation.org.

Bald eagle, migratory birds poisoned near Rhinelander, feds investigating

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is  working to apprehend those responsible for the illegal poisoning of an American bald eagle and other migratory birds near Rhinelander in Oneida County.

A reward of up to $5,000 is being offered for information leading to a conviction of the person or persons responsible for killing a bald eagle and two ravens.

The birds were discovered on the shoulder of Pine Lake Road north of Haven Lake in July.

The eagle was found lying next to a dead raccoon and the ravens were found in the adjacent ditch.

All three birds and the raccoon were sent to our National Fish and Wildlife Forensics Laboratory in Ashland, Oregon.

The forensics lab determined the raccoon carcass was laced with the pesticide carbofuran and the birds ingested the carbofuran while scavenging on the raccoon.

Carbofuran is an agricultural pesticide used to kill insects, mites and nematodes and is often marketed under the trade names Furadan and Curaterr.

Carbofuran is extremely toxic to birds, fish and bees.

Bald eagles and ravens are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

Additionally, bald eagles are protected by the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act. Violations of these statutes carry maximum criminal penalties of up to $100,000 and/or one year in federal prison.

Anyone with information concerning these birds is asked to call the Office of Law Enforcement in Madison, Wisconsin at 608-221-1206, ext. 15.

Botulism suspected in deaths of birds along Lake Michigan

Officials say botulism is suspected in the deaths of hundreds of birds recently along Lake Michigan.

Dan Ray, botulism monitoring project lead for Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, counted a large number of dead birds last week.

The Traverse City Record-Eagle reports he joined a team of volunteers over the weekend in burying 250 birds at Michigan’s Good Harbor Bay Beach.

Ray says the birds “almost certainly” died of type E botulism. He expects to see more dead birds on Lake Michigan’s shoreline through November.

Typically, type E botulism occurs in fish-eating birds in the open waters of the Great Lakes.

The nonprofit conservation group Common Coast says the bird deaths extended at least 10 miles up the Leelanau Peninsula and past Leland, Michigan.

On the Web

http://www.nps.gov/slbe/learn/nature/sick-birds.htm

Climate change may be turning gulls into cannibals

By TRISTAN BAURICK, Kitsap Sun

Jim Hayward slips on a hard hat and pops open an umbrella before stepping into a storm of angry gulls.

Hayward, a seabird biologist based on Protection Island in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, is making his evening rounds through the largest gull nesting colony in the Puget Sound region. He’s been monitoring this site since 1987, so he’s used to the shrieking, the dive-bombing, the frequent splatterings of gull poop, and the pecking at his head, hands and feet.

What he’s not accustomed to is the cannibalism, reported the Kitsap Sun. It’s hard to watch: A fluffy chick straying a few yards from its nest is suddenly snatched up by its neck. Another hungry gull swoops in and bites at the chick’s leg. The mother intervenes but is outnumbered. Her baby disappears under a frenzy of flapping and pecking.

Over the last decade, the gulls have shown a growing taste for their neighbors’ eggs and chicks. The trend appears linked to climate change.

“It doesn’t seem like a lot, but a one-tenth of a degree change in seawater temperature correlates to a 10 percent increase in (the odds of) cannibalism,” said Hayward, a professor at Andrews University in Michigan.

Over the past 60 years, ocean temperatures have increased about 15 times faster than any other time over the past 10,000 years. As temperatures rise, plankton drops into deeper, colder water. Fish that feed on the plankton also drop lower. The surface-feeding gulls, which depend almost entirely on fish while nesting on Protection Island, can’t find enough to eat.

“So they resort to feeding on their neighbors,” Hayward said.

Bird paradise

Protection Island is a high-cliffed and nearly treeless swath of land near the mouth of Discovery Bay about five miles west of Port Townsend.

More than 70 percent of the region’s seabirds nest on Protection — a fact that led to its status as a national wildlife refuge in 1982. The 380-acre island is home to the third largest colony of rhinoceros auklet seabirds in North America and one of the last two breeding sites in the Salish Sea for tufted puffins, which nest in holes burrowed into sandy cliffs.

The island’s ecological value and the fragility of its habitat make it off-limits to the public.

Protection’s only full-time resident is a caretaker employed by the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife. Hayward and his wife, mathematician Shandelle Henson, also of Andrews University, spend two months each summer studying the vast glaucous-winged gull population.

High temps, high cannibalism

It was Henson who answered the cannibalism question.

Taking decades of Hayward’s data, she fed it into a computer model loaded with a range of climate and other environmental factors.

“We found that, over the last eight years, there’s a 100 percent correlation between hot years and high cannibalism,” she said.

She also found that gulls are beginning to synchronize egg-laying, possibly in response to cannibalism.

“On one day, we’ll see a ton of eggs. The next day — hardly any,” Hayward said.

Henson’s hypothesis: “If there’s a lot of eggs available all at once, there’s less chance your own eggs will be taken,” she said.

Gulls aren’t picky eaters. They’ll pluck a meal from a dumpster just as readily as a beach at low tide. But during nesting, their range is greatly reduced. They can’t be gone for long from their nests and must rely on whatever the immediate area provides. Increasingly, the region’s marine waters simply aren’t providing.

Forage fish such as herring and sand lance — key food sources for salmon, birds and other marine animals — are in decline. Fish accustomed to warmer water are moving in, but they pack less of a nutritional punch.

“Essentially, they’re getting junk food,” said Scott Pearson, an avian ecologist with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The region’s puffins haven’t resorted to cannibalism but climate change appears to be making them less committed parents.

During periods of high sea temperatures, Puffins tend to abandon their nests, fail to incubate their eggs or skip the nesting routine altogether. That’s probably because they’re so busy and exhausted from food hunting that they can’t invest time or energy into raising the next generation, Pearson said.

While puffin populations are struggling, a visit to any Puget Sound beach makes clear that gulls are anything but endangered, despite the rise in cannibalism.

But what happens with gulls may be happening or may soon happen with other species that aren’t as easy to study, Henson said. Gulls have long been a favorite species for scientists investigating how environmental changes affect animal behavior.

“They’re big, easy to see and easy to find,” Hayward said. The fact that they nest on the ground in densely-packed colonies makes data collection fairly simple. Hayward strolls through each day, counting and measuring eggs and noting the occurrence of chicks or broken eggs in about 300 nests marked with numbered stakes.

“They’re a good indicator species, like canaries in the coal mine,” he said.

Meade Krosby, a research scientist with the University of Washington’s Climate Impacts Group, agrees.

“There’s no doubt climate change has already negatively impacted species around the world,” she said. “We know the oceans are getting warmer, so we can expect more cannibalism.”

Scientists have recently documented climate-related upticks in cannibalism among other species.

As ice recedes in the Arctic, polar bears are finding it harder to hunt seals and other marine mammals. In response, hungry males have been spotted hunting down smaller bears and cubs.

In 2013, warming waters off the coast of Maine sparked a lobster population explosion. With lobsters suddenly the most plentiful food source around, the opportunistic eaters began dining on each other.

“They kind of ate themselves out of business,” Krosby said.

Super cannibals

Cannibalism has been noted in about 1,300 species, including humans. Usually, animals resort to cannibalism as a stopgap measure during periods of food scarcity. Once food is plentiful again, cannibalism ceases.

But what if conditions don’t improve, as appears to be the case with climate change? It could give rise to what Hayward calls “super cannibals.” These are gulls that have largely given up on fish foraging and are instead specializing in hunting their own kind.

“You can tell them because they have scads of egg shells around their territory,” he said. “You see them slowly flap around the colony, and suddenly they drop when they see an unattended nest.”

They also take advantage of the panic caused when an eagle soars overhead. Most gulls begin flying frantic circles, but the super cannibals seize the opportunity, raiding eggs and plucking away chicks.

Cannibal gulls often eat two or three eggs a day — more than enough to meet their caloric needs. Hayward has recorded some of these gulls eating up to 80 eggs in a month.

“For a species, cannibalism is not a good long-term strategy,” Hayward said. “If there’s no food, it can get you across a bad year.”

“But every year,” added Henson, “could be a bad year with climate change.”

A tufted puffin. The region’s puffins haven’t resorted to cannibalism but climate change appears to be making them less committed parents.
A tufted puffin. The region’s puffins haven’t resorted to cannibalism but climate change appears to be making them less committed parents.

New research challenges hypotheses about how birds came to fly

New research by post-doctoral fellow Alexander Dececchi challenges long-held hypotheses about how flight first developed in birds and raises the question of why certain species developed wings long before they could fly.

Dececchi, a William E. White Post-Doctoral Fellow in the Department of Geological Sciences and Geological Engineering at Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada, used measurements from fossil records and data from modern birds to test the evolutionary explanation for the origin of birds.

Dececchi and his colleagues determined that none of the previously predicted methods would have allowed pre-avian dinosaurs to take flight.

“By disproving the idea that the predicted models led to the development of flight, our research is a step toward determining how flight developed and whether it can evolve once or developed multiple times in different evolutionary lines,” he said

Dececchi and his colleagues examined 45 specimens, representing 24 different non-avian theropod species, as well as five bird species.

After determining some critical variables from the fossils — such as body mass and wing size — they used measurements from living birds to estimate wing beat, flap angle and muscular output.

These values were used to build a model for different behaviors linked to the origins of flight, such as vertical leaping and wing-assisted incline running – a method of evasion for many ground-based modern birds that has become a favored pathway toward the origin of flapping flight in the paleontological literature.

The researchers also tested if any species met the requirements to take-off from the ground and fly under their own power.

“We know the dimensions and we know how modern birds muscles and anatomy work,” Dececchi said. “Using our model, if a particular species doesn’t reach the minimum thresholds for function seen in the much more derived birds — such as the ability to take off or to generate a certain amount of power — it’s safe to say they would not have been able to perform these behaviors or fly.”

The researchers found that none of the behaviors met the criteria expected in the pathway models.

In fact, they found that almost all the behaviors had little or no benefit, outside of those species which evolved right before the origin of birds.

When looking at WAIR specifically, the researchers found that it only was possible in a handful of large winged, small bodied species such as Microraptor, but found no evidence to suggest its use was widespread.

Dececchi said the group’s findings suggest that wings, even those with large or ornately colored feathers, could have served purposes, such as signaling or sexual selection, before the development of flight.

Dececchi said the question of whether flight evolved once or multiple times in multiple evolutionary tracks is an ongoing topic of debate.

Many of the species studied lived tens of millions of years and thousands of miles apart, with a last common ancestor that existed 50 or 100 million years earlier – leading researchers to wonder if flight evolved once but was lost, or if different species stumbled upon the same solution.

“There is some evidence that they evolved in parallel – there may be some differences in the details between how each taxon flew, but they tend to converge on these same answers,” Dececchi said. “That, to me, is one of the most exciting questions that has come out of the past few decades of work in theropods.”

The study is titled “The wings before the bird: an evaluation of flapping-based locomotory hypothesis in bird antecedents” and was published in the open access journal PeerJ.

Federal rule would permit deaths of thousands of eagles

The Obama administration is revising a federal rule that allows wind-energy companies to operate high-speed turbines for up to 30 years, even if means killing or injuring thousands of bald and golden eagles.

Under the plan announced earlier in May, wind companies and other power providers could kill or injure up to 4,200 bald eagles a year without penalty — nearly four times the current limit. Golden eagles could only be killed if companies take steps to minimize the losses, for instance, by retrofitting power poles to reduce the risk of electrocution.

Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe said the proposal will “provide a path forward” for maintaining eagle populations while also spurring development of a pollution-free energy source that’s intended to ease global warming, a cornerstone of President Barack Obama’s energy plan.

Ashe said the 162-page proposal would protect eagles and at the same time “help the country reduce its reliance on fossil fuels” such as coal and oil that contribute to global warming.

“There’s a lot of good news in here,” Ashe said in an interview, calling the plan “a great tool to work with to further conservation of two iconic species.”

The proposal sets objectives for eagle management, addresses how bird populations will be monitored and provides a framework for how the permitting system fits within the agency’s overall eagle management, Ashe said.

Wind farms are clusters of turbines as tall as 30-story buildings, with spinning rotors as wide as a passenger jet’s wingspan. Blades can reach speeds of up to 170 mph at the tips, creating tornado-like vortexes.

The Fish and Wildlife Service estimates there are about 143,000 bald eagles in the United States, and 40,000 golden eagles.

It’s unclear what toll wind energy companies are having on eagle populations, although Ashe said as many 500 golden eagles a year are killed by collisions with wind towers, power lines, buildings, cars and trucks. Thousands more are killed by gunshots and poisonings.

Reporting of eagle mortality is voluntary, and the Interior Department refuses to release the information.

Wednesday’s announcement kicks off a 60-day comment period. Officials hope to issue a final rule this fall.

The plan was developed after a federal judge in California blocked a 2013 rule that gave wind energy companies a 30-year pass to kill bald and golden eagles.

U.S. District Judge Lucy Koh ruled last August that the Fish and Wildlife Service failed to follow environmental procedural requirements in issuing the 2013 directive. The agency had classified its action as an administrative change from a 2009 rule, excluding it from a full environmental review.

The agency adopted the 30-year rule as a way to encourage the development of wind energy, a key source of renewable power that has nearly tripled in output since 2009. A previous rule allowed wind farms to apply for renewable five-year permits.

Golden and bald eagles are not endangered species but are protected under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. The laws prohibit killing, selling or otherwise harming eagles, their nests or eggs without a permit.

The permits would be reviewed every five years, and companies would have to submit reports of how many eagles they kill.

David Ward, a spokesman for the American Wind Energy Association, said wind power helps conserve eagles by mitigating climate change, a major threat to the birds. “While unintentional take of eagles can occur from wind energy production, it is relatively uncommon and our industry does more than any other to find ways to reduce that small impact,” Ward said.

Michael Hutchins of the American Bird Conservancy said that unless the plan requires better tracking of bird deaths at or near wind turbines it is unlikely to succeed. Hutchins, whose group filed a lawsuit challenging the 2013 eagle plan, said officials must ensure that bird-death reporting is done by independent observers rather than by the industry, which he said treats such data as “trade secrets.”

“Mortality data should be transparent and open to the public,” Hutchins said. The group also is concerned that wind farms are not sited in migratory paths of eagles, he said.

Under the new proposal, companies would pay a $36,000 fee for a long-term permit allowing them to kill or injure eagles. Companies would have to commit to take additional measures if they kill or injure more eagles than estimated, or if new information suggests eagle populations are being affected.

Companies would be charged a $15,000 administrative fee every five years for long-term permits. The fees would cover costs to the Fish and Wildlife Service of conducting five-year evaluations and developing modifications, the agency said.

Number of animals, plants on Endangered Species waiting list drops to lowest level since 1970s

The number of animals and plants on the waiting list for Endangered Species Act protection has dropped to its lowest levels since the “candidate” list was begun in the 1970s, according to an updated list released today by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Triggered by a settlement with the Center for Biological Diversity and other groups in 2011, the agency has made great progress in addressing the backlog of species in need of protection. The Service announced today that only 60 species — 42 animals and 18 plants — remain on the candidate waiting list for protection, according to CBD.

“The Endangered Species Act has prevented the extinction of 99 percent of the plants and animals under its care, but the law only works after species make it onto the list. It’s heartening to see so many more species now getting the protection that will save them,” said Tierra Curry, a senior scientist at the center.

In 2011, the service and the center reached a landmark agreement requiring the agency to make final protection decisions on the 251 species on the candidate list as of 2010, as well as initial decisions on 506 additional species petitioned for protection under the act.

Under that agreement for 757 species, 151 species have gained final protection to date and another 71 have been proposed for protection.

Species that have already been protected under the agreement include the yellow-billed cuckoo, a beautiful bird found along streamsides in the West that had been waiting for protection since a 1998 center petition; the Oregon spotted frog, threatened by wetland loss, which had been waiting since a 1989 petition; the Ozark hellbender, an ancient salamander threatened by water pollution that had been waiting for protection since 2004, and the Dakota skipper, a prairie butterfly that had been waiting since 1978. 

Candidate species are species that warrant federal protection but are placed on a waiting list where they do not receive any substantive protection. More than 40 species have gone extinct while waiting for protection.

The only species added to the candidate list this year was the Sierra Nevada red fox — the result of a 2011 center petition to protect the California alpine dweller.

Other animals still waiting on the list include the Pacific walrus, which is threatened by diminishing ice pack due to global climate change; the Hermes copper butterfly in San Diego; and the eastern population of the gopher tortoise, a keystone species in the longleaf pine habitat of the southeastern United States.

“Scientists agree that the planet’s currently undergoing a major extinction crisis, the sixth in Earth’s history,” said Curry. “The Endangered Species Act is one of the strongest laws any nation has to safeguard biological diversity in the face of ever-increasing threats.”

Although the Fish and Wildlife Service has reduced the candidate backlog, hundreds more species await consideration for protection.

The service acknowledged in its year-end notice that more than 500 species await a status review to determine if they warrant protection.

UW research: Bird habitat changing quickly as climate change proceeds

The climatic conditions needed by 285 species of land birds in the United States have moved rapidly between 1950 and 2011 as a result of climate change, according to a paper published recently in Global Change Biology.

“Our goal was to look at the climate where these birds were observed breeding over this period and determine where that ‘sweet spot’ was moving as the climate changed in this period,” says first author Brooke Bateman, a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. 

Warming temperatures are the fundamental alteration of climate change. The researchers saw the expected northward expansion of suitable conditions, Bateman says, but also a considerable expansion to the west. Unexpectedly, the southern borders of suitable conditions did not, in general, move north, perhaps because a remnant population had not yet left that area. 

In general, the southern plains and lower Midwest faced the greatest decline in ideal climate conditions, while the Dakotas, mid-Atlantic and Pacific Coast showed the greatest increase.

The study, the largest examination of the velocity of climate change for birds in the United States in the recent past, began by combining detailed weather records for the lower 48 states with data on the location of bird occurrences from the Global Biodiversity Information Facility. The researchers cross-referenced those data, creating a computer model of where the birds nest, in terms of climate factors like average and extreme temperature and precipitation. 

The researchers then used the model to predict where the same climate conditions for those birds would be located in 2011, reflecting the ensuing changes in climate. Finally, using data from the 2011 North American Breeding Bird Survey, they checked their work. 

The results show that in the face of climate change, a suitable climate for birds has been moving, on average, eight-tenths of a mile per year — about twice the pace predicted by earlier studies.   

To make sense of their data, the researchers lumped bird species into guilds — groups based on shared factors like diet, foraging location and migration habits. Hospitable climate moved relatively fast for short- or long-distance migrants, carnivores, insect eaters, and birds that foraged in the air or the canopy of trees. Slow-moving guilds included permanent residents, herbivores, omnivores, hummingbirds and birds that forage on tree bark, such as woodpeckers. 

The findings are a significant expansion on the notion that climate change, once called “global warming,” would simply force species to the north, or to higher altitudes. In fact, climate change affects wildlife in myriad ways, says Bateman. “People used to think, with global warming, that species would move poleward to beat the heat, but the changes in rainfall and extreme weather events are equally influential, especially in driest part of year. That affects where the birds can live.”

Climate could affect predators, prey, disease or many other factors, Bateman says, but the study did not address the mechanisms behind the shifts in location.  And while suitable climate is clearly moving, what is not clear is whether the plants and other animals (such as insects) that birds depend on are moving in the same way.

Bateman acknowledges that because of their mobility, birds are not fully representative of plants and ground-based animals, but they are easier to study due to the wealth of data amassed over decades of amateur observation. 

The results emphasize the need for connected habitat that allows plants and animals to move as climate change continues, Bateman says. “The ideal situation would be to secure large amounts land that allows connectivity between current protected areas and areas that will become suitable,” says Bateman. “We need to think together, to make the landscape more hospitable to all of the wildlife that depends on it.” 

Bateman’s co-authors included Patricia Heglund, of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Anna Pidgeon and Volker Radeloff of the UW-Madison Department of Forest and Wildlife Ecology. 

“Movement of suitable climate is not necessarily a bad thing,” Bateman says, “because the climate in some nearby areas may become more suitable for these species. However, we must consider the widespread agriculture and development in some of those new areas, in combination with the rapid pace of climate change. So even though the climate may become more suitable in those areas, the landscape is already so altered that much of this habitat is useless to the birds.”