Red-headed woodpecker

The red-headed woodpecker, an eastern woodland species, is at high risk for extinction in the face of climate change.

A new report published today by National Audubon Society shows that some of Wisconsin’s most iconic bird species are at great risk for extinction due to climate change.

Species like the Bobolink, Scarlet Tanager, Red-headed Woodpecker and a variety of warblers and sparrows face serious declines due to rising temperatures, more frequent and larger storms, and shifts in food supply.

“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. 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,” said David Yarnold, CEO and president of Audubon.

“A lot of people paid attention to last month’s report that North America has lost nearly a third of its birds. This new data pivots forward and imagines an even more frightening future,” Yarnold said. “And, you can use a first-of-its kind web tool to find threatened birds in your zip code, as well as a list of things everyone can do.”

Audubon scientists studied 604 North American bird species using 140 million bird records, including observational data from bird lovers and field biologists across the country. The zip code tool at Audubon’s website allows users to look at how their favorite local species will be impacted by climate change.

The report shows expected species changes based on two climate change scenarios: temperature increases of 1.5°C and 3°C. Examples of those birds at highest risk include whooping cranes, red-headed woodpeckers, bobolinks, wood thrushes, dark-eyed juncos, scarlet tanagers, and many others.

In Wisconsin, temperatures are expected to increase in both winter and summer, and average precipitation is expected to increase as well. However, precipitation is expected to come in the form of major storms and evaporate more quickly due to higher temperatures. Those changes will make Wisconsin’s plants, animals, and inhabitants look and function very differently.

While some bird species may experience increases in their populations under these climate conditions, 107 bird species in Wisconsin alone are vulnerable to collapse if climate change continues at a pace that increases temperatures by 3°C by 2100; that number is decreased to 61 vulnerable bird species if temperature increases are limited to 1.5°C. The results give hope to Wisconsinites that if big and meaningful change is made now to limit temperature increases to 1.5°C, our state’s birds are much less at risk.

Not all birds will be affected the same. In south-central Wisconsin, the groups with the most species vulnerable to the impacts of ongoing and future climate change are birds relying on eastern forests (e.g., scarlet tanager, warblers) and grasslands (e.g., bobolink, sparrows).

This news comes in the wake of another publication by Rosenberg et al. released in Science this September that shows that bird populations throughout the United States have declined by 29% since 1970. Again, grassland and forest species again at highest risk in Wisconsin.

University of Wisconsin-Madison avian ecologist Dr. Anna Pidgeon says, “fewer than 1% of the grasslands that formerly covered Wisconsin still remain, and many of those exist as small fragments, where nest predation, especially near edges, is often high. And in grasslands birds have greater exposure to extreme heat waves, droughts, and damaging rain events than in other habitats.” This makes grassland birds especially susceptible to climate change effects.

Humans can still prevent these species from disappearing from our landscape by making active and meaningful changes to minimize warming to 1.5°C. To save birds, it is important to address the underlying causes of climate change and protect places that birds need now and will need in the future. Significantly reducing carbon emissions and supporting efforts to protect and restore native habitats like prairies, wetlands, and forests can play a large role in limiting warming and its effects.

“The potential loss of so many of our birds is troubling for lots of reasons. Birds have huge economic value. They are incredible indicators of environmental health,” shares Matt Reetz, executive director of Madison Audubon Society. “And, quite simply, they bring joy to people’s lives. Birds matter.”

The Audubon climate report, zip code tool, and Wisconsin-specific information can be found here:

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