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Climate change pushes birds north

Forests in the North could become the last safe haven for hundreds of North American birds displaced by climate change in less than a decade.

Forests in the North could become the last safe haven for hundreds of North American birds displaced by climate change in less than a decade, according to a new report from the National Audubon Society.

“The North is basically the Noah’s Ark for all these birds,” said Dr. Jeff Wells with the Boreal Songbird Initiative. “It’s the place that’s going to give them the best opportunity for survival.”

The Audubon report, released this week, looked at how a warmer world will impact the climates in which birds thrive. Of the 588 North American bird species Audubon studied using 30 years of data, hundreds could be in trouble.

The models indicate that 314 species will lose more than half of their current climatic range by 2080.

“Almost all of them move north significantly, but there are almost three quarters of them that are going to move wholesale into the North, into the boreal and Arctic region,” Wells said.

Shifting habitats north is not as simple as it looks on a map, and just because birds move somewhere new, doesn’t mean they’ll survive there.

There are just too many unknowns to be able to predict that, Wells said. The type of trees, the type of water and the type of food they find in the new habitat are all variables.

“A climate could be good for a certain duck, let’s say, but if where that climate space has moved there’s not many wetlands, then there’s nowhere for the duck to go,” he said.

The boreal forest and other green spots with large swaths of land in the North will give these birds the best chance to survive a climate shift, Wells said.

“Big areas of enacted healthy habitat for all these (animals) will be the key to surviving all the onslaught of the climate-induced changes coming at them,” he said.

While some birds are being pushed north, many that already live up here, are being pushed right off the map.

They’re simply going to see their climate disappear, according to the data.

Projections show birds like the Smith’s longspur, a small songbird found across the North, will lose virtually all of its range, particularly in the summer.

“It’s not that it’s moving, it’s just that it’s disappearing,” Wells said.

“The projection is that the climate that it prefers is going to disappear. So the question is can it adapt to some other kind of climate? We just don’t know.”

Cameron Eckert, president of the Yukon Bird Club, points out that adapting to a new home takes time - more time than the projections suggest there is.

“Birds evolve over hundreds of thousands or millions of years. So when habitats are changing over the course of 65 years, or our climate conditions are changing over that same time period, birds can’t necessarily evolve or shift their ranges,” he said.

The bay-breasted warbler, for example, is projected to move north. It likes to nest in older trees.

“You can’t move a forest and have it grow into a mature forest in 80 years, obviously, it’s not going to move that quickly over time,” Wells said.

Two birds that have seen dramatic declines in the Yukon recently - the rusty blackbird and the olive-sided flycatcher - could actually see their numbers explode in the North over the next 60 years, according to the report.

Eckert said Yukon birders have already seen certain species more north than usual.

“I have heard from researchers, for example people in the Old Crow area, that common loons have become more common in that area over the last 25 or 30 years,” he said.

But, while the common loon has arrived, other birds, like the red-throated loons, appear to be fading away.

“While one species of loon now seems more common, consistent with the climate change report, another species of loon appears to have rather sharply declined,” Eckert said.

When a new species of bird is spotted in the North, that’s big news, Eckert said. Keeping track of the ones that aren’t seen anymore is a little more difficult.

That’s why things like the Christmas Bird Count, a volunteer-run count that takes place every year, is so important, he said.

It was Christmas bird counts, and other similar surveys, that contributed to this latest report.

Eckert said Yukoners are actively involved.

Last year there were 20 Christmas bird counts in communities around the North. Thirteen of those communities were in the Yukon, he said.

For Wells, the takeaway from this latest report is nothing new: “lower greenhouse gas emissions, so that projections don’t come true.”

He also encourages northern residents to be aware of the importance of their land.

“Maintaining those big areas of intact habitat is going to continue to be crucial.”

Contact Ashley Joannou at