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Birds
Planning Ahead
New reports look at how to protect birds as climate changes.

Sea-level rise will inundate the saltmarsh sparrow’s breeding grounds. The spectacled eider and the yellow-billed loon may encounter mercury and other contaminants released from melting permafrost. And as spring comes earlier, the common nighthawk may arrive too late at its breeding grounds after its long-distance migration.

These sobering predictions come from a comprehensive new national study, “State of the Birds: 2010 Report on Climate Change,” released in March. A collaboration between federal agencies and environmental organizations, the study assesses how a warmer world is likely to affect birds and their habitats, and highlights the need for collective, adaptive conservation efforts. At the same time, new research from Audubon California indicates that some areas already set aside as Important Bird Areas (IBAs) will become even more critical to bird survival.

“The reports are a wakeup call as to what may occur if we let climate change get out of hand,” says Diana Stralberg, an ecologist for PRBO Conservation Science, a group that works to protect birds and their ecosystems, who wasn’t involved in this work.  “Distribution models give potential scenarios, and we need to use them to our best abilities rather than just go blind into the future.” A 2009 Audubon report presented a startling picture: Of 305 species that winter in North America, some 60 percent have shifted their ranges north, by an average of 35 miles.

This year’s federal report looks ahead. Incorporating natural history data with climate model predictions, scientists found that climate change imperils all 67 species of U.S. ocean birds. But birds from subtropical forests to the Arctic tundra will feel the heat, too. “The findings help guide where we should spend our wildlife adaptation dollars,” says Greg Butcher, Audubon’s bird conservation director and a report coauthor. For instance, to save wetlands from rising sea levels for the saltmarsh sparrow, wildlife managers could use dredge materials to build up the bird’s coastal habitat.

Audubon California’s work reveals that existing IBAs may become more important in the future. Armed with 110 years of Christmas Bird Count data and 44 years of USGS Breeding Bird Survey information, scientists mapped bird movements, then cross-referenced those data with climate change models to forecast how birds might fare in specific areas. They found that 89 of the state’s 145 IBAs will continue to provide suitable habitat, and the sites will help at least 16 of the 25 species deemed particularly susceptible to climate change survive until 2100. “[This study] helps confirm that IBAs are the places we should continue to focus our efforts,” says Andrea Jones, Audubon California’s IBA director. “This is a way to put our flags in the ground at certain priority places.”

The loggerhead shrike, for instance, will survive in 89 of the 106 IBAs it currently inhabits. Likewise, the burrowing owl may persist in 44 IBAs (two-thirds of the current total). The grasshopper sparrow, however, might not fare so well: There’s a less than 50 percent chance it will remain in 16 of the 40 IBAs it occupies.

The new reports will guide conservation groups’ efforts, and the findings will be incorporated into landscape-level adaptation strategies developed by eight new regional Climate Science Centers the Interior Department is launching around the nation.

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