America's migratory birds show signals of disruption

  • Article by: KEITH BLOMSTROM
  • Updated: June 30, 2013 - 5:22 PM

The evidence points to climate change, altered habit and the domino effect.

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Sandhill cranes preen and oil their feathers near The Crane Trust, which is close to Wood River, Neb. T

Photo: Alyssa Schukar, Associated Press

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I was very pleased last week to listen to President Obama’s address on climate change and extreme weather concerns. I applaud his strong commitment to act now and zero in on energy issues. This is extremely important for all Americans.

Many people like me are interested and concerned about the importance of climate issues on humans, as well as on our wildlife.

Global warming is rapidly altering and destroying habitats that migratory birds have spent thousands of years developing. It’s the biggest threat this century, not just to migratory birds but to America’s wildlife, according to the latest in a series of reports from the National Wildlife Federation. “Shifting Skies: Migratory Birds in a Warming World” calls on our elected officials to take steps now to cut industrial carbon pollution, speed our transition to clean energy, and use climate-smart conservation strategies to protect America’s communities and wildlife habitats.

Migratory birds live a complicated and delicate existence, depending on multiple food sources and varied habitats. They cannot survive just anywhere. The slightest change in a habitat can have dramatic, even devastating impacts.

The National Wildlife Federation study offers examples all around North America of the dangerous consequences of a warming climate:

• Spring is arriving earlier and winter later, creating a mismatch in timing for some birds. When some birds stop partway during migration or arrive on their breeding grounds, their traditional food sources may not be available.

• Extreme weather events are becoming more frequent and more intense. Last year’s superstorm Sandy has already cost the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service $68 million to restore habitats on 25 refuges.

• Birds’ ranges are shifting and, in some cases, contracting. 177 of 305 species tracked have shifted their centers of abundance during the winter northward by 35 miles on average in the past four decades.

• Some habitats are changing. For example, climate change is exacerbating pests and disease, such as the mountain pine beetle that has devastated many western forests — changes that undermine birds’ survival.

• Ocean birds are the most at risk because many nest on islands flooded by sea level rise. And as ocean waters become more acidic from carbon pollution, the marine food chain may be impaired.

On the heels of America’s hottest year on record and with climate change-fueled wildfires once again ravaging the nation’s West, nature is sending us a clear message. “We need to work together to solve these challenges, not just across local, state, and federal boundaries, but across party lines,” says Lynn Scarlett, former deputy secretary and chief operating officer of the Interior Department under President George W. Bush.

President Obama doesn’t need the help of squabbling partisans on Capitol Hill to take some major steps to cut America’s carbon footprint. His Environmental Protection Agency is developing landmark limits on industrial carbon pollution, limits that must be finalized and implemented as soon as possible.

I was pleased to hear Obama mention the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline in his climate remarks and plans. This project would pollute our skies indirectly with huge amounts of carbon pollution. A much safer and smarter bet would be investing in wind energy, a clean and limitless source of made-in-America energy with the potential to create tens of thousands of jobs.

A migratory bird’s life is a chain of habitats for feeding, breeding and raising young — break any one link, and the survival of the species is at grave risk. Scientists are seeing disturbing signs that things are starting to go very wrong with that critical link in the migratory chain of many song and game birds. Something is throwing off that delicate timing that has evolved over thousands of generations, and evidence points to climate change.

We have the power to improve the outlook for America’s migratory birds. We know the steps we need to take to safeguard not just birds but all wildlife, our communities, and current and future generations of Americans from climate change. Now it’s time for action.

 

Keith Blomstrom is vice chair of the Minnesota Conservation Federation.

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