Climate change could wipe out North America's bird species, just-released Audubon projections suggest

Amy Bennett Williams
Fort Myers News-Press

Climate change could wipe out almost two-thirds of North America's bird species, according to a report the National Audubon Society released Thursday

The report shows 389 of 604 North American bird species are at risk of extinction if the planet's temperature rises another 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit over the next 80 years.

Scientists used 140 million records compiled by birders and biologists from Canada to Mexico to create the report, "Survival by Degrees: Bird Species on the Brink."

Southwest Florida’s vivid roseate spoonbills are among the imperiled birds, said Julie Wraithmell, Audubon Florida’s executive director, as are those that raise their young along the Gulf.

 “You’re going to see impacts to birds like black skimmers that nest on our beaches,” she said. “Beach-nesting species are going to get squeezed between the city and the sea as sea level rises.”

A roseate spoonbill takes flight from a tidal pool on the north end of Lovers Key in early May 2019. According to the South Florida Water Management District, wading birds had a good breeding season.

Beyond temperature, scientists examined other climate-fueled impacts including droughts, sea-level rise and habitat lost to development.

The Audubon report comes on the heels of another last month published in the journal, Science, that showed bird population losses of 29% since 1970, in what the study’s authors called a “staggering decline.”

Taken together, they paint a sobering picture of past and future, said Kara LeFevre, who chairs Florida Gulf Coast University's department of ecology and environmental studies.

“Even for the person who doesn’t give a rat about a bird, you can say if the birds are telling you that your water’s poisoned and your forests are disappearing and that’s changing the air you breathe, you might want to pay attention,” she said. “(Birds) send us a signal on how all of those environmental conditions are truly changing.”

Wraithmell said it's important to keep in mind that though the report focuses on birds – "We’re Audubon and that’s what we do" – more species will be impacted. "They're just one part of a larger system."

Audubon's climate scientists used two scenarios: one with minimal effort to curb carbon emissions, and another with urgent action, said Wraithmell.

As it sounds the alarm, Wraithmell emphasizes that Audubon also offers the good news that if communities act now, three-quarters of the at-risk species can be helped.

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The nonprofit has also released a toolkit for municipalities and leaders looking to tackle climate change, from which she hopes others will “plagiarize wantonly"  from programs that have worked in other communities with the goal of replicating those successes. Ideas include everything from green roof guidelines to improving infrastructure for electric vehicles.

"All of these things add up," Wraithmell said, "and it's going to take all of us working together to meet the ambitious goals that we need to make a better future for the birds and for us."

More:This group of Southwest Florida leaders wants to work together to combat climate change

LeFevre said people alarmed by the report can take action.

“Support measures to control our impact on climate change. Support organizations like Audubon that advocate for protecting bird habitat. Support better land management decisions, better land-use, urban planning.”

The worst-case scenario is the two-thirds devastation, but, Wraithmell said, “The exciting thing about the report is that it shows that if we act now, that nearly three quarters of those birds can have a better future. We can save them from that fate. It's not a reason to throw up your hands and say, 'Well, it's over,'  It's far from over. And there really is an opportunity now.

"This should be a flash point. It should galvanize people. That's why we are following our message about the birds with, 'Here's what you can do.' Because it really is going to take all of us.”

More:Hurricane Irma was wake-up call on climate change for many Southwest Floridians, new Conservancy of Southwest Florida survey shows

A roseate spoonbill takes flight after feeding at J.N. "Ding" Darling Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island on Thursday, September, 12, 2019,

Learn more

For more information, check out Audubon’s ZIP code-based tool, the Birds and Climate Visualizer, which helps users understand the impacts to birds where they live. It's at