Birds and climate change

Jump ahead thirty years. Will you still see your favourite birds in your local national park? Parks Canada and its partners have collaborated on a nationwide study to understand the effects of climate change on bird populations.

Birds have an amazing ability to evoke moods, landscapes and seasons. A loon’s call conjures up a wilderness lake. A V-shaped flock of honking geese signals the end of summer. On a freezing January day, when the leafless woods around you seem mineralized with the cold, the distant tapping of a woodpecker is a reminder that life continues even in the dead of winter.

Birds enrich our experience of nature through their colours, songs and flight patterns. But how will our experience change in the next thirty years, as bird populations shift with climate change?

As baseball great Yogi Berra said, predictions are hard—especially about the future. The big picture on climate change doesn’t appear instantly, like a selfie; we build it up over time as more data is analyzed and models are revised. 

While we can’t predict the exact future impacts of climate change, we know protected areas will continue to serve as a cornerstone of our conservation efforts under changing climate conditions by protecting habitats now, and into the future. Planning and adaptation are therefore essential.

That's why Parks Canada partnered with the National Audubon Society (U.S.), Canadian Wildlife Service and Birds Canada on a national study of birds and climate change. Building on an earlier study on bird populations in U.S. national parks, the partners explored the changes that might occur in Canada’s national parks and national marine conservation areas over the next thirty years.

Parks Canada Ecosystem Scientist Dr. Scott Parker led the Parks Canada team that contributed to the study.

Peregrine falcon in flight.
Peregrine falcon, just one of the 434 species of birds whose future range in Parks Canada’s sites was modelled as part of the study. (Photo: Darroch Whitaker)

The study looked at the rate of “turnover” in the bird species assemblage—that is, the change in species composition—for each site. Averaged across all sites, the team projects a 25 per cent turnover in species for the summer and a 30 per cent turnover in species for the winter, by the 2050’s. (That’s assuming our current high rate of greenhouse gas emissions continues.)

The highest rate of species change is expected to be in sites in the Atlantic and Arctic regions.

For example, as current species move out and new ones move in, Torngat Mountains National Park in Newfoundland and Labrador is projected to experience a 50 per cent turnover of the summer species assemblage and 70 per cent of the winter species assemblage.

Climate change – a bird’s eye view

Every bird species has its own unique set of environmental tolerances—requirements in terms of seasonal temperatures, patterns of precipitation, nesting and feeding areas, timing of breeding and so on. As these conditions change, birds will have to adapt to survive.

Many species will shift their range and, as this occurs, all of Parks Canada’s sites are projected to experience some change in species composition – both in terms of colonization, as some new species move in, and extirpation as some of the existing species can no longer persist in the area.

This is already happening in such places as Torngat Mountains National Park. Field observations by park staff have shown that northern boreal “treeline” birds are expanding their ranges northward into the park (which falls within the Arctic Cordillera ecozone).

blackpoll warbler
The blackpoll warbler, a common songbird in the northern boreal forest, is now a regular breeding species at many locations in Torngat Mountains National Park. (Photo: Darroch Whitaker)

But other birds may find it difficult to shift their ranges. They have a very precise combination of habitat requirements that may not be met in a changing climate—because (for example) there may be lags of many decades or even centuries before their preferred habitat can catch up with the shifting climate.

An example is Harris’s Sparrow. It breeds principally near the treeline in northern Canada and is the only songbird that breeds exclusively in this country. The Audubon Society projects that it will lose 99 per cent of its summer range, since the tundra-forest margin is particularly vulnerable to climate change. The bird could thus disappear in the summer months from Wapusk National Park in Manitoba.

What’s in store for the birds we love?

Common loon – As it shifts its range northward, the common loon could potentially disappear in the summer months from mid-latitude national parks in central and eastern Canada, including Rouge, Thousand Islands, Kouchibouguac and Cape Breton Highlands.

Ruffed grouse – Known for its courtship “drumming,” where the male rapidly beats its wings, the ruffed grouse could similarly shift its range northward and disappear from mid-latitude parks in Ontario.

Peregrine falcon – Although a few southern sites may no longer be climatically suitable for this species, the majority of Parks Canada sites will experience stable or improving conditions in summer. Notably, twelve sites are projected to experience potential colonization by this species in winter.

Climate refugia

As birds inhabit protected areas across North America, such areas will become increasing vital as “climate refugia.” These are places where the effects of climate change are tempered by certain natural features, allowing vulnerable species to persist.

For example, mountains may allow temperate species to shift upslope to cooler climatic zones. Lakes can absorb heat and produce cooling breezes. Islands within protected areas often lie beyond the reach of wildfires (which are projected to become more frequent with climate change). North-facing slopes are often cooler than south-facing ones.

A  group of birdwatchers.
Data provided by amateur birders can contribute to scientific research.

With such environmental features, climate refugia become a kind of backwater (in the positive sense) where the effects of climate change are buffered and not so immediate.

Habitats and conditions may remain suitable for longer periods of time.

Wildlife then has some breathing space to survive and even adapt in a place that is relatively free from the other stressors it faces, such as human development and loss of habitat.

Parks Canada actively manages and restores ecosystems, and each site will have to respond to species turnover in its own way.

More research and analysis is needed to determine where climatic refugia would benefit species most impacted by climate change. Protecting and restoring climatic refugia could lower the turnover in bird species and provide “stepping stone” habitats across the landscape to help species expand their range. Lessening disturbance around nesting areas, or better connecting landscapes inside and outside parks, could also help bird species over time.

Regardless, simultaneously managing for persistence and change will become an increasing challenge for parks.

This study on birds and climate change brings home to all bird lovers the need for action on climate change. Scientists estimate that we have a ten-year window to curb greenhouse gas emissions and hold the global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees. If we don’t act now, says Parks Canada’s Dr. Scott Parker, “we’re locking into a change, a trajectory, that will have profound consequences for the species and ecosystems we so deeply care about and strive to protect.”

What you can do

  • Large-scale studies such as the one described here depend on data contributed by amateur birders. While some parks such as Point Pelee National Park boast a comprehensive inventory of species, others have very limited lists. You can support scientific research by contributing to databases such as iNaturalist.
  • Find out how you can take climate action. For some tips on reducing your carbon footprint, see Parks Canada’s T-Shirt Wisdom on Climate Change. Check out the Government of Canada’s Protect Nature Challenge and discover more ways to fight climate change.

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