What’s not to like about birds? Wisconsin is fortunate to enjoy phenomenal bird diversity that helps make our state a very special place. But let’s put my obvious bird bias aside. Even if you are not a birder, there are very important reasons to care about the future for birds, and to worry about the risks that climate change poses for this precious resource.
Last fall when the National Audubon Society released its Birds and Climate Report, a comprehensive and rigorous study of future effects of global warming on birds, I was shocked. Scientists studying 588 bird species in Canada and the U.S. found that 314 species are severely threatened by the warming of our planet. More than half! Indeed, many bird species could become extinct.
The news is bad for Wisconsin, too. Can you imagine summer mornings in northern Wisconsin without the plaintive call of the Common Loon? The Audubon Report finds that loons may no longer call Wisconsin home in the future as a result of the impact of a warmer climate on their habitat. Wood Thrush, Warblers, Bobolinks, Bald Eagles and Wood Ducks also may be absent from Wisconsin before the end of the century. Even the ever-present Mallard is projected to lose 75 percent of its summer habitat. More than 50 of Wisconsin’s wonderful birds are threatened or endangered by the changing climate we are already experiencing.
But let’s get beyond the “birds make life better” argument. Let’s talk turkey. Or better yet, money. Loss of birds through climate change will harm our economy. According to a 2011 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service survey, 72 million birders contribute $55 billion a year to the national economy. In Wisconsin, two million wildlife viewers spend roughly $2.5 billion each year.
Birding is big business. On top of that, birds themselves provide billions of additional dollars worth of services like rodent and mosquito control, nutrient cycling and pollination. They do this for free!
Consider the old saw of the canary in a coal mine. Threatened birds serve as indicators of bigger problems. According to the Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts, Wisconsin summers will be nine degrees hotter by the year 2055. We’ll have more intense storms and significant changes in the length of our seasons. These changes will affect us in many ways, threatening Door County’s boreal forest, rare plant communities and animal habitats, not just our feathered friends. Troubling declines in bird populations are a warning signal of the failing health of some of our ecosystems. If birds are in trouble, so are we.
It is easy to think of this as a problem for the future, but the reality is global warming is already occurring. Our birds are telling us this. We are seeing shifts today in migration patterns, bird distributions and food availability.
While the news provided by the National Audubon Society’s groundbreaking Birds and Climate Report is scary, there is hope. There are many things that we can all do in our personal lives, our businesses and together in our communities to make the earth a better place for birds and people.
First, we must protect the places that birds nest by conserving and expanding their critical habitats. Second, we must work together to reduce the severity of global warming by changing our behavior – that is, living and working in more sustainable ways that will help our natural environment be more resilient. Third, we must make ourselves heard. We need to spread the word on the importance of birds: losing even one species to a warming climate is not acceptable. Fourth, sharing your love of nature with your kids and grandkids is crucial. They will have a huge impact on whether we adapt to a changing environment in a sustainable, bird-friendly manner.
The important thing is to take action. We share a tremendous opportunity, and a moral responsibility, to respond to the clear message of the scientific community in the Audubon Report. We need to work together to slow down the warming of our planet. To paraphrase an old saying, the best time for action is 20 years ago; the second best time is now.
You can read more about the National Audubon Society study and access action-related information at climate.audubon.org.
Matt Reetz is the executive director of the Madison Audubon Society. He received his B.S. in Biology with emphasis in ecology, ethology and evolution from the University of Illinois, where he did bird field work in the swamps of Southern Illinois. He then earned a Master’s and a PhD from the University of Florida and worked on a variety of bird research projects in Australia, the Caribbean, Chile and the U.S. He has worked as a biologist for Florida’s state wildlife agency and as a biology professor in Indiana.
The Climate Corner is a monthly column featuring a variety of writers from around the state and Door County addressing various aspects of the challenges and opportunities climate change presents. The Corner is sponsored by the Climate Change Coalition of Door County, which is dedicated to “helping to keep our planet a cool place to live.” The Coalition is always open to new members and ideas. Contact the Coalition at: [email protected].