Canary in the Coalmine: Impact of Climate Change on Birds

By following birds, we learn about the greatest threats they and our communities face. And we find ways to address them.

On a recent train ride, I watched the first rays of sun peek over the autumn trees and was encouraged by the first bird songs of the morning. I reflected on the news that my organization recently shared with the world. 

A new study from our scientists at National Audubon Society revealed that climate change is the number one threat to birds.  Over half of the birds studied in New York are climate vulnerable, including the Wood Thrush, Scarlet Tanager, and Saltmarsh Sparrow.

It is deeply saddening to imagine a day when we might not be able to enjoy the magical encounters with Scarlet Tanagers, a personal favorite of mine.  They are not easy to find.  This makes it even more special when you get to see a male’s gorgeous bright red body and black wings and tail, high in a forest canopy.  While the species can be seen from spring to fall throughout New York's forests, the Scarlet Tanager is one of Audubon’s priority species projected to be affected by four climate change-related threats.

Birds are our canary in the coalmine, and the brilliant Scarlet Tanagers depend on us to protect the places they need to survive.

Survival by Degrees: 389 Species on the Brink shows that two-thirds (389 out of 604) of North American bird species are at risk of extinction from climate change. North American birds are more vulnerable than ever from rising temperatures and climate-related events like sea level rise, droughts, fires, and powerful storms. Global warming also intensifies existing threats for birds – and people – including extreme weather events that can wipe out entire nesting nurseries or winter flocks.

The fate of birds and humans are deeply connected. Birds not only bring beauty and joy to our lives, but they are also pollinators, seed dispersers, and important indicators of the health of an ecosystem. By following birds, we learn about the greatest threats they and our communities face. And we find ways to address them.

The situation is critical, but there is good news. Audubon’s science also shows that if we take action now, we can help improve the chances for 76% of species at risk. And if we act to protect birds, we will help other wildlife and people.

So where to start?

As part of Audubon’s report release, we launched a new tool called the “Climate Visualizer.” By visiting and entering your zip code, you can see how climate change may affect your area and the birds you love. Through this lens, you can take actions to help on a local level, starting today.

We also need to mobilize at our state and federal levels. New York made history this July when Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA) into law. The landmark bill sets a target to eliminate or offset New York's planet-warming emissions entirely by 2050. It also establishes a Climate Action Council to develop the main features, deadlines and on-the-ground efforts it will take to get us there. We encourage all New Yorkers to make every effort to support the goals of the CLCPA. You can start by speaking up during public comment periods.

We have the knowledge and the tools to reduce global warming; what we need are commitments at the local, state and federal level to take bold actions.

We must develop legislation and policies that support our coastal communities, which will be the first to feel the impacts of climate change. It is essential that we restore and manage tidal marshes to help protect our communities in the face of sea level rise and more powerful storms.

Statewide, we should support the development of responsibly sited and operated renewable and clean energy (wind and solar) in our communities. At the same time, we must support upgrades and expansions to our electrical transmission infrastructure to reduce the amount of carbon released in to the atmosphere.

We must help our Northeast forests become more resilient to the stressors of climate change, in order to provide essential ecosystem services like carbon sequestration, flood control, and watershed protection. Increasing the diversity and health of our woodlands will be paramount. In collaboration with Audubon Connecticut, we have already helped improve conditions of over 1 million acres of forestland, and are developing tools and strategies to be able to reach 5 million.

We must always remember that the fate of birds and humans are deeply connected. If a landscape or ecosystem is broken for birds, it is or will soon be for people.

It’s time to unite in conservation action. By following birds, we at Audubon learn about the greatest threats they and our communities face. And we address them. Will you join us?

This article was recently published in the Times Union.

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