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Audubon report: Climate change threatens nearly two-thirds of our birds

Purple Finch is one of many species threatened by climate change. Photo by Sandy Cutting/Audubon

Three weeks ago, a highly publicized study from researchers at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and other conservation and research groups reported that bird populations in the United States and Canada have declined by 29 percent, or almost 3 billion birds, in the last 50 years.

Today, the National Audubon Society issued a report that its president said is “even more alarming.”

Audubon scientists studied 604 North American bird species during breeding and non-breeding seasons and found that 389 species, nearly two-thirds, are moderately or highly vulnerable to climate change.

“First, the news that should snap all of us to attention: More than two-thirds of America’s birds are at risk if the current pace of global warming continues,” according to the report’s foreword. “Birds we love are in peril, including the Saltmarsh Sparrow, which could lose 62% of its current winter range. Some species may be able to adapt, but others will be left with nowhere to go, and we risk losing them forever.”

Birds in a warming world

A key point to understand about the study is average global temperature rise. Since the Industrial Revolution began around 200 years ago and carbon emissions started building up in the atmosphere, Earth has warmed about 1°C on average. We are already seeing significant effects at that amount of warming, but to avoid the worst forecasts about climate change, most experts say we must limit the overall increase to 1.5°C.

The Audubon report predicts what will happen for birds at an increase of 1.5°C by 2030 to 2050, and at higher temps later in the century:

  • 286 species are vulnerable at 1.5°C.
  • 327 species are vulnerable at 2°C.
  • 383 species are vulnerable at 3°C.

“Two-thirds of America’s birds are threatened with extinction from climate change, but keeping global temperatures down will help up to 76 percent of them,” said David Yarnold, CEO and president of Audubon. “There’s hope in this report, but first, it’ll break your heart if you care about birds and what they tell us about the ecosystems we share with them. It’s a bird emergency.”

The Audubon website has lots more detail about the study, as well as a new zip code-based tool, the Birds and Climate Visualizer. It helps users understand the impacts to birds where they live, making climate change even more local, immediate and, for tens of millions of birdwatchers, deeply personal.

I used it to check my zip code in Milwaukee and learned that birds like Henslow’s Sparrow, Trumpeter Swan, Red-headed Woodpecker, and Brown Thrasher are highly vulnerable if we don’t fix this problem.

With that in mind, here are five steps to reducing climate change from Audubon:

  1. Reduce your use of energy at home and ask your elected officials to support energy-saving policies that reduce the overall demand for electricity and that save consumers money.
  2. Ask your elected officials to expand consumer-driven clean energy development that grows jobs in your community – like solar or wind power.
  3. Reduce the amount of carbon pollution released into the atmosphere. In order to drive down carbon emissions, we will need innovative economy-wide solutions that address every sector of the economy – like a fee on carbon. Another option is to address carbon emissions one sector at a time like setting a clean energy standard for electricity generation.
  4. Advocate for natural solutions, from increasing wetlands along coasts and rivers that absorb soaking rains to protecting forests and grasslands that are homes to birds and serve as carbon storage banks, and putting native plants everywhere to help birds adapt to climate change.
  5. Ask elected leaders to be climate and conservation champions.

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Matt Mendenhall

Matt Mendenhall

Matt Mendenhall is the editor of BirdWatching magazine and You can reach him at

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