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.  Almost half of the birds studied in Connecticut 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 Connecticut’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 already know what we need to do to reduce global warming.  We need more people at the local, state, and federal levels putting solutions into practice.

Statewide, we should support local job growth through 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 develop legislation and policies that support our coastal communities, who will be the first to feel the impacts of climate change. On the ground, 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.

Connecticut is 59% forested land: 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 New York, we have already helped improve conditions of over one million acres of forestland, and are developing tools and strategies to be able to reach five million.

The study showed that more than half of the bird species in North America could lose at least half of their current ranges by 2080 due to rising temperatures. We could lose nesting birds like the White-throated Sparrow and Dark-eyed Junco, for which Connecticut was historically the southern extent of their range.

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?

How you can help, right now