Climate change and the parks
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Several bird feeders dangle among the aspen stands on our property, two which can easily be seen while washing dishes. As a result, it’s impossible not to watch the comings and goings of not just individual birds, but the species they represent.
For years, we could tell spring was drawing near by the evening and black-headed grosbeaks that would show up in small flocks of a couple dozen or so to fill up on the oiled black sunflower seeds. Northern flickers also were spring visitors — though they also stuck around for the other seasons — and finches and chickadees dodged the bigger birds for their share of the meal. Scrub jays were the signal that fall was here, as they’d descend on the feeders to fill their crop with the seeds that they’d then cache for later.
But in 2021 the grosbeaks didn’t show up, and the chickadees seemed to disappear for weeks on end. Was their vanishing act just happenstance? The grosbeaks again failed to show up this spring, and the chickadee numbers seemed to be down, too.
During my national park trips this year birding varied. Homestead National Historical Park in southeastern Nebraska showered me with a cacophony of bird songs and calls, and while the symphony wasn’t as great at Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve in Kansas, birds were vocal there. But I had to strain my ears at times in parts of Everglades National Park back in April to notice the birdlife, and the forest surrounding Colter Bay in Grand Teton National Park in June was relatively quiet.
No doubt, my luck, or lack of luck, in spotting or hearing birds had to do with the time of day or the specific habitat I was in. The lush tallgrass prairie at Homestead and Tallgrass Prairie is a magnet for birds, as are the wetlands created by the Niobrara River as it flows through Agate Fossil Beds National Monument in western Nebraska.
But a new report out on bird populations across the United States suggests I didn’t just have bad luck. Rather, warns the 2022 State of the Birds report, more than half of bird species normally found in habitats as diverse as forests, deserts, and oceans in the United States are in decline. An exception to that dour assessment are waterfowl populations in areas where habitat conservation has been strongest.
The report, the first comprehensive bird species census since a 2019 study declared the loss of nearly 3 billion birds in the United States and Canada over a 50-year period dating to 1970, states that one in four breeding birds have been lost from North America over the past 50 years, and that 70 species have “collectively lost two-thirds of their populations in the past 50 years and are on track to lose another 50 percent in the next 50 years.”
Ten ‘Tipping Point’ Species in danger of drastic population declines, according to the American Bird Conservancy. Top row, left to right: Black Rail by Agami Photo Agency/Shutterstock, Bobolink by Dan Behm, Buff-breasted Sandpiper by Betty Rizzotti, Chestnut-collared Longspur by All Canada Photos/Alamy Stock Photo, Golden-winged Warbler @ Michael Stubblefield Bottom row, left to right: Greater Sage-Grouse by Vivek Khanzode, Laysan Albatross by David Fisher, Least Tern by Dennis W. Donohue/Shutterstock, Prairie Warbler @ Michael Stubblefield, Rufous Hummingbird by mbolina/Shutterstock
Native species in Hawai’i are particularly at risk, as the Traveler noted back in April. The Hawaiian islands once counted more than 50 species of endemic forest birds, but today there are fewer than 17 species, according to the National Park Service, some with fewer than 500 individuals left.
The kiwikiu, a variety of honeycreeper also known as the Maui Parrotbill, is one of the dwindling species and is predicted to vanish from the Earth in just six years. Once abundant across Maui and Moloka’i, today fewer than 200 individuals are believed to be found across less than 8,000 acres on Maui in Haleakalā National Park, Hanawi Natural Area Reserve, and The Nature Conservancy’s Waikamoi Preserve.
According to the State of the Birds report, “Hawai‘i’s ten most endangered species are collectively represented by fewer than 5,500 individual birds.”
In a release accompanying the report, Mike Parr, president of American Bird Conservancy, said, “[E]veryone can make a difference to help turn declines around. Everyone with a window can use simple solutions to prevent collisions. Everyone can help green their neighborhood and avoid using pesticides that harm birds. Everyone who lives in a neighborhood can bring the issues and solutions to their community and use their voice to take action.”
Reversing the course of the declines in Hawaiian bird species is not as simple, though. They are threatened by an avian malaria transmitted by mosquitoes. But ABC officials expressed optimism in the approach being taken in Hawai’i — and especially in Haleakalā National Park, as Traveler noted — to essentially engineer sterile mosquitoes in a bid to greatly reduce the insect’s presence. The work involves releasing male Culex mosquitoes that carry a naturally occurring bacteria, Wolbachia, that differs from the Wolbachia strain females carry and so upend the female’s reproduction.
“The bacteria has kind of hijacked the reproductive system of the mosquitoes,” explained Chris Warren, a forest bird biologist at Haleakalā, for our story. “If one mosquito that has a type one Wolbachia tries to breed with another mosquito that has a different type, Wolbachia type two, none of those offspring survive. They lay eggs, but the embryos die.”
This approach has been used successfully in many parts of the world, said the biologist, though most of those applications have been to address human illness transmitted by mosquitoes.
“There is hope and the opportunity to use naturally occurring bacteria to reduce mosquito populations, break the disease cycle, and allow the forest birds to thrive,” said Chris Farmer, Hawai‘i program director at ABC, in a press release announcing the State of the Birds report.
Trends for breeding bird species by group or by habitat during 1970–2019, except for the shorebirds trend, which begins in 1980/2022 State of the Birds report
According to that release, the State of the Birds report was built from five data sources, including the North American Breeding Bird Survey and Christmas Bird Count, to track the health of breeding birds in habitats across the U.S.
“From grassland birds to seabirds to Hawaiian birds, we continue to see that nearly all groups of birds and types of bird habitat have declined significantly,” said Martha Williams, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service director. “The one group that is seeing an increase in population size is wetland-dependent birds, including waterfowl.”
At the National Park Service, natural resource staff couldn’t point to any recent trend studies to say whether bird populations in the National Park System were declining, but added that the parks are “not immune from these large national population trends. Individual parks may see certain species populations rise/fall due in response to local or regional events such as fire, drought, etc.”
Climate change also will influence future birding trends in the parks. Back in 2018 the National Park Service and the National Audubon Society teamed up on a study that predicted that, on average, there could be up to a 25 percent turnover of bird species in some national parks by 2050.
But also driving the trends is the evergrowing human footprint. Countering that through conservation projects similar to those that have helped waterfowl flourish in many areas are essential, according to ABC, which noted in the press release that “[D]ata show that the biggest population declines are among shorebirds, down by 33 percent since 1970, and grassland birds, down by 34 percent. Conservation must be stepped up to reverse these losses. Everyone can play a role in saving these species by making their voices heard in support of bird-saving legislation.”
“Urgent action and funds are needed to halt biodiversity loss in the U.S.,” said Jennifer Cipolletti, ABC’s director of Conservation Advocacy. “Federal funding sources such as the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act, the Inflation Reduction Act, and the Neotropical Migratory Bird Conservation Act can help fill the massive gap in funding for conservation programs managed by states, territories, and tribes. Migratory Bird Joint Ventures can play a vital role as the nexus among these organizations, bringing partners together to facilitate effective delivery of these funds for the greatest conservation success.”
According to ABC, 200 organizations “from across seven sectors in Mexico, Canada, the U.S., and Indigenous Nations are also collaborating on a Central Grasslands Roadmap to conserve one of North America’s largest and most vital ecosystems — grasslands, which span hundreds of million acres.”
“People have changed our grassland landscape and people are key to its future,” said Tammy VerCauteren, executive director of the Bird Conservancy of the Rockies and a representative of the Central Grasslands Roadmap partnership. “Collectively, we are working to make a movement to save our grasslands and the people and wildlife that depend upon them. Together we can ensure tribal sovereignty, private property rights, food security, resilient landscapes, and thriving wildlife populations.”
Tell us what have you noticed during your park visits. Have you seen more birds, fewer birds, different species than you expected to see?
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State Of The Birds Report: More Than Half Of U.S. Bird Species Are … – National Parks Traveler
Climate change and the parks