Climate change shifts songbird populations

Wildlife biologists say birds like this Kirtland's warbler, along with cardinals and other bird species could experience climate change impacts to their distribution, migration times and habitat. Photo: USFWS, Joel Trick.

By KATHLEEN LOFTUS
Capital News Service

LANSING – Climate change impacts songbird breeding and distribution patterns and could potentially lead to health problems in birds.

“Climate itself doesn’t really impact them – it’s the indirect effects that they cue in on,” said Chris Hoving, the Department of Natural Resources and Environment endangered species coordinator.

Hoving said climate change is a natural phenomenon. “It changes every 100 years, 40 years, every decade and even yearly with seasons. There is no one steady climate and animals are constantly adapting.”

He also said humans are another principle cause of climate change.

“In Michigan, we can see a pretty strong signal that the climate has been warming for about 80 years. We’re partway into global warming. We’re moving off to new realm that poses a planning challenge and stresses wildlife,” Hoving said.

Unlike most plants and animals, birds can move as the climate changes, Hoving said.

“They are plastic in how they migrate at different times further north, south, east or west to find habitat, compared to salamanders or butterflies that cannot move across the landscape.”

Hoving said studies have noted that birds now migrate north earlier and south later.

Migrating birds return when insects hatch, but because of the climate change, birds are coming back too early or too late to feed, he said.

Bill Porter, a fisheries and wildlife professor at Michigan State University, said, “We don’t know the mechanics, but it’s pretty easy to recognize that birds are noticing a change.”

“They’re here to nest and feed the young. If the schedule of when plants emerge and seeds ripen changes, the songbird population shifts as well,” he said.

Audrey Mayer, a Michigan Technological University forest resource and environmental science professor, said collisions, habitat loss to urbanization, competition with other birds for nesting and cat predation are other factors in the decline of songbirds.

Mayer said, “A late cold front in the spring can force birds down into the Gulf and kill them. They’re trying to time their crossing with beneficial warm fronts coming up from the South when spring bugs emerge that they can eat to refuel.”

Porter said birds spend a lot of time in Michigan, coming from the Ohio and Indiana borders, as well as from Canada.

“North and south species are occurring in Michigan. It’s one of the places where we see the most change,” Porter said.

Mayer said, “As Michigan’s winters become shorter, warmer and wetter, I expect more pest species that used to be killed off by cold winters to become more problematic.”

“On the other hand, we may start to see birds more regularly that previously were quite rare. There are reports of species such as sandhill cranes and some songbirds arriving earlier,” she said.

Porter said it isn’t one particular type of bird that is changing — it’s a wide array of species, including warblers, cardinals and red-bellied woodpeckers.

For example, the endangered Kirtland’s warbler, which nests in jack pines in the northern Lower Peninsula and Upper Peninsula, are at risk if the warming climate damages the trees.

Hoving said people need to get used to seeing different birds at feeders and when hunting.

“Who knows if we will have many loons in Michigan in 30-40 years, and that’s a problem.  When you hear loons up north, you know you’re really in the wilderness,” Hoving said.

“If they’re not there because of us, that’s a huge loss of experience in Michigan even though they can fly elsewhere.

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