When it comes to birds, Audubon is the name to trust.
Long after the renowned scientist John James Audubon lent his name to the conservation organization, Audubon has served as a bellwether for birds.
Last month, The National Audubon Society published a report that was both revelatory and repetitive: our birds are in trouble.
“Survival by Degrees: 389 Bird Species on the Brink” isn’t pleasant reading. Neither is a doctor telling you that you have cancer. But which is more practical — information or ignorance?
As a birder of 50-plus years, I have known for nearly 50 years that wild birds are in trouble. Their numbers have plummeted — visibly — over the last few decades. Allow me any “remember when” moments, and I’ll tell you how Wisconsin’s May’s were busier and more colorful. How migratory waves of birds were regular and robust. How spring was far noisier.
As a child of 11 I wandered the woods in amazement at the rain of birds that watered the leafing trees. During a migratory “fallout” there was no need to lower my binoc; just scan the treetops until my arms grew too weak to respond. I didn’t know it at first, but that was already changing in the 1970’s.
That’s scientifically confirmed in the new Audubon report.
As a point of reference, you should first be aware that there are more than 800 species of birds that occur in North America, either as breeders or as migrants. More than half of those have made appearances in Wisconsin. To declare that nearly half the birds on the continent are in peril is a bold and frightening prospect. Especially given the fact that only eight have gone extinct here since the arrival of the European settlers.
But Audubon backs the declaration up with science. Extrapolating the data gleaned from 140 million collected observations, and folding in the latest climate models and impacts of human activity, they have constructed projections for how our birds’ current physical ranges will shift over the next few decades.
There are birds you know and love that flesh out those projections.
The wood thrush is one. It’s an iconic songbird of deciduous forests across Wisconsin. Its song is one of the most beautiful wild sounds to ever move a forest.
Audubon predicts that the bird might maintain less than half its current habitat, and perhaps gain another 20%. However, it is expected to lose 57% of its current breeding habitat as the world dries out and trees diminish.
That hard work we’re doing to restore whooping cranes? Forget about it. Audubon predicts an 82% reduction in the bird’s already restricted range. The prospects for the lovely cerulean warbler? Even worse — a 92% reduction in range.
If the temperature in Wisconsin rises by a mere 3 degrees average, the common loon, bobolink, evening grosbeak, hermit thrush, ovenbird, and chestnut-sided warbler would be pushed completely out of the state. Bye-bye, blackburnian warbler. So long scarlet tanager.
In all, Audubon offered insight on 203 of Wisconsin’s birds. Of those, 96 are considered stable or only slightly vulnerable, while the other 107 are deemed moderately or highly vulnerable to the onslaught of climate change.
Climate change isn’t just a threat to birds. It poses hazards to all living things, including humans. It could exert extreme pressures on resources worldwide and create the kind of conditions that lead to massive shifts in populations.
So I will ask again: which is more practical…information or ignorance?
Audubon says that our birds are in trouble. We’ve seen it with our own eyes, and we feel it like a portent of storm in our bones. How will we respond?
Betchkal is a free-lance writer from Eau Claire.