Climate change is affecting our feathered friends

Climate change is affecting our feathered friends

I have written before about my life-long hobby of bird watching. There are over 60 million birdwatchers in the United States, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The industry contributed $41 billion to the U.S. economy in 2019.

However, Bradnee Chambers of the United Nations Environment Program said bird populations are in sharp decline worldwide. Several studies have pointed to dramatic drops in the variety and numbers of birds around the world.

Back in the 1970s, Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring" opened our eyes to the effects that widespread use of organochlorine pesticides, like dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, DDT, had on bird populations. This pesticide, which is now banned in the U.S., was sprayed so profusely it is hard to find an area on the planet not affected by this persistent compound.

While bird populations are still being impacted by pesticides, as well as by window collisions and predation by feral and domestic cats, climate change is now becoming the next culprit causing huge declines in both numbers and varieties of birds.

A recent International Union for the Conservation of Nature report said in the near future one in eight species of birds will face extinction.

There are several ways in which increasing global temperature is affecting bird populations. One direct effect of climate change, according to a United States Forest Service report, is the disruption of birds’ thermoregulation.

What this means is that in order to adjust to different temperatures, birds must expend more energy. This expenditure of valuable energy reserves can interfere with breeding, migration and the basic energy needed to maintain life.

Research in both Europe and England shows evidence climate change is responsible for significant northward shifts in the distribution of avian communities across the northern hemisphere.

Vertical shifts of populations also are occurring as birds move from lower elevations to higher elevations. When this happens, there is less suitable habitat left for the birds as food sources become limited. Some species are just out-competed by other more generalist species.

An article in Nature points out our migratory birds are arriving too late to keep pace with the timing of their food supply. In other words, as our spring season in Ohio arrives sooner, insects hatch earlier. By the time our neotropical migrants, like warblers, arrive and breed, the insect populations they depend on are past peak.

The outlook for water birds is even bleaker. From 2015-16 a blob of unusually warm seawater, resulting from a massive heat-wave event, was cited as being responsible for the deaths of about 1 million common murres. This is a penguin-like bird, found along the Alaskan coastline. The 1000-mile-long blob of seawater was 10.8 F warmer than usual.

In that one-year time frame, over 62,000 dead or dying common murres washed onto the beaches. Ten to 20 percent of the population of the region was wiped out.

The warming waters triggered systematic changes throughout the ocean ecosystem including a lack of food. The birds, which must eat half their body weight a day, died of starvation. This heat wave also affected tufted puffins and Cassin’s auklets.

In 2008 the government of Australia's Federation commissioned a study by Professor Ross Garnaut to examine the impacts of climate change on Australia. Garnaut’s report stated Australia’s bushfire seasons would lengthen and generally be more intense by 2020.

The predictions of Garnaut and other climate scientists were correct as we have watched Australia burn. These fires are impacting bird species that are already on the edge of extinction such as regent honeyeaters, eastern bristlebirds and glossy black cockatoos.

Last August the Trump administration set out to weaken the Endangered Species Act, the piece of legislation created in 1973 and credited for bringing the bald eagle and whooping crane back from the brink of extinction.

The journal Nature called Trump’s changes the most sweeping alterations in the history of the act. The Trump administration said these updates will ease the burden of regulations, but the director of the Center for Biological Diversity, Brett Hartl, said the changes tip the scale in favor of industry.

Previously species listed as “threatened” were automatically protected from being killed by using bans. Now each new species listed as endangered will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis before being afforded that protection.

The weaker language also allows regulations to ignore threats from long-term climate change and to consider economic impacts before listing a species. This means a logging operation could be allowed in critical habitat if the economics prove it to be beneficial.

The Trump administration also has proposed an update to the National Environmental Policy Act. This act requires federal agencies to prepare environmental-impact statements before major projects such as road building, construction of oil and gas pipelines, and power plants can be started.

A major change made to NEPA alters the ability of permit reviewers to consider the impacts of climate change. These impacts often result from a sum of many actions over long periods of time and seldom have a reasonably close causal relationship to any one action.

The Keystone XL construction was halted by a judge in 2018 because the companies in charge of construction ignored the inconvenient cumulative effects of greenhouse-gas emissions. The changes to NEPA may have overwhelming impacts to the 389 bird species in the U.S. threatened by climate change.

At a time when thousands of species are facing extinction due to man-made climate change, we should be strengthening the laws to protect them, not weakening them.

Comments to NEPA changes can be made by March 10 to Council on Environmental Quality, 730 Jackson Place NW, Washington, DC, 20503.

Comments can be submitted electronically to They must include identification by docket number CEQ-2019-0003.

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