Group: Area birds threatened by climate change

Climate change is taking a toll on the region’s birds, according to the National Wildlife Federation.

A new report by the environmental advocacy organization describes how the bird population is being threatened by the effects of warmer temperatures when they arrive to nest in New England by the threat of rising sea levels impacting marshland habitat and by the increasing severity of storms.

“New England birds are under threat from climate change, and we’re already seeing the impacts,” the Wildlife Federation spokeswoman Carol Oldham told a press conference this week. Migration patterns are changing because of warming winters and erratic weather patterns, she said. Because their ranges are moving and their habitats are being altered by climatic shifts, birdwatchers — numbering 1.4 million in Massachusetts alone, — are beginning to watch changes to native as well as migratory species.

With earlier arrival of warm weather, migratory birds are facing trouble in the feeding their young, said Jeff Wells, senior scientist at the Boreal Songbird Initiative in Maine.

“The evidence is now overwhelming that this is really the most pervasive long-term threat to bird populations here and across the world,” said Wells, explaining that migratory birds, on average are arriving at least two weeks earlier in the region than they were 50 years ago. The birds that have the hardest time adapting are those that have the farthest migration, from the tropics, he said, and find their arrival for the peak insect population to feed their young is too late.

“It’s a little bit like if you or I … arrived at 7 o’clock every evening with our families to a dinner table and there was always abundant food, and then the kitchen decided to shift the time to 6 o’clock , and we never got the message, and arrived at 7, and all the food was all gone.”

Migrating birds are also affected by threatened habitat where they overwinter.

“We need to be cognizant that different things are happening in different places, and everything’s connected,” he cautioned.

Seabirds along the coast, Wells said, are watching their young starve as the population of fish on which they forage is shrinking because of warming sea waters.

And as the sea level rises — as it’s now expected to do as much as 3 feet by the end of the century, said Pam Hunt of New Hampshire Audubon — the salt marshes where species like the salt marsh sparrow nest, will be flooded. Typically, that marsh would migrate inland, but because of development along the coasts, and stronger seawalls that will be needed to offer protection from stronger storms, “The salt marsh is going to be stuck between a rock and a wet place. There will be significantly less habitat for those birds,” as well as beach-nesting species like the piping plover.

Even closer to home, Vermont-based National Wildlife scientist Hector Galbraith said, boreal forest species like the boreal chickadee and yellow-bellied flycatcher are seeing their range moving northward out of New England. And while other birds, like the black vulture and the yellow-bellied woodpecker, have been extending northward into New England, we’re losing specialized “niche” species with limited places to go.

“Lets not forget, we have only seen the tip of the iceberg,” Galbraith warned, pointing out that average temperatures have risen 2 to 3 degrees over the past 50 years and are expected to increase by as much as 7 degrees in the decades ahead. “Somewhere out there in the future, there is going to be a catastrophic threshold. We cross that threshold, we will see these loses and changes accelerating and becoming exponential. That’s what really worries me about this situation.”

The wildlife organization is calling for immediate political action to reduce carbon pollution under the Clean Air Act and to stop the Keystone and New England Tar Sands pipeline proposals, by investing in offshore windpower projects and protecting and restoring forest habitats, which also serve as carbon sinks.

While Galbraith emphasized, “If we don’t get our act together, we’re going to see some major changes in the future, which will make the changes we’ve already observed look pretty penny ante,” he added. “We can’t afford to say, ‘Game’s over, we might as well live with it.”

Oldham called for political leadership, at the federal as well as state and regional levels, especially given that New England has independent and Republican senators who can join with Democrats around the region to press for action

“We need action to curb climate change, and we need it now,” she said.

But even as President Obama called Tuesday for steps to rein in greenhouse gases, the conservative Competitive Enterprise Institute vowed to oppose it, calling carbon emission limits for existing power plants “the biggest risk to consumer welfare and the economy.”

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You can reach Richie Davis at:
or 413-772-0261, Ext. 269

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