/Audubon’s New Climate Report and What it Means for Birds in the Arid West

Audubon’s New Climate Report and What it Means for Birds in the Arid West

Audubon just released a new scientific report, Survival by Degrees, showing that 64 percent (389 out of 604) of North American bird species are at risk of extinction from climate change. The good news is our science also shows that if we take action now we can help improve the chances for 76 percent of species at risk. We know what to do to protect the birds we love and the places we all need now and in the future.

Climate and Water in the West
In the West, we’re already dealing with a multi-decade historic drought and longer, more intense fire seasons. Climate change threatens western water resources and some researchers are calling our new reality “aridification.” Overall, the West has experienced increases in the severity and length of droughts over the past 50 years, taking a toll on water supplies.

Climate change not only alters the quantity of flows, but also the timing. Rising temperatures in the winter cause more precipitation to fall as rain rather than snow in mountainous areas from Colorado to California. Furthermore, warming temperatures are causing snow to melt earlier in the spring, altering the timing of streamflow in headwaters rivers. 

The Colorado River’s water supply is stretched thin—due to diversions, over-allocation and climate change—and further increases in temperature will reduce snowpack and river flows harming the river and the 40 million people and 400 species of birds that rely on it. By mid-century, climate warming is projected to decrease total Colorado River flows by 20 percent from the observed historic average.

Likewise, across the network of saline lakes that dot the West—including Great Salt Lake—we see reduced water levels that can negatively impact millions of shorebirds, waterbirds, and waterfowl. These drying lake beds can cause health and economic problems as well as a decrease in food and habitat for birds.

It’s essential that we curb carbon emissions to limit temperature increases and work proactively, doubling down on conservation practices, so that these already stressed water ecosystems can sustain life in the arid West for decades to come.

How were the species evaluated?
Audubon scientists analyzed 140 million bird records, including observational data from bird lovers and field biologists across the country, to assess vulnerability for species based on the amount of a species’ range that may be gained or lost with climate change. Audubon designated species that may lose much more range across North America than they have potential to gain as climate vulnerable. Sources for this report include eBird, U.S. Geological Survey, North American Breeding Bird Survey, and Global Biodiversity Information Facility.

What does this mean for bird species in the arid West?
It should come as no surprise that western forests are one of habitat groups with the most threatened bird species in warming scenarios. As temperatures increase, drought, extreme heat, and fire will become more intense, more widespread, and more devastating across the West. This has implications for water quality and watershed health and will affect both birds and people.

Two examples of birds associated with Western Water priority freshwater and saline lakes habitats that are highlight climate vulnerable in Audubon’s report are Yellow Warbler and Long-billed Curlew. The bright, sweet song of the Yellow Warbler is a familiar sound in streamside willows across the West. Long-billed Curlews are often found around the Great Basin of Utah around emergent wetlands and marsh, as well as using agricultural fields where nesting and brood-rearing take place in pastures and hay meadows.

Of all the birds listed as vulnerable, there are distinctions between those that would respond favorably if we limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (versus 3 degrees C) and would benefit from our actions. For instance, if we keep the rise in temperature to less than 3 degrees C, we can protect birds like the Yellow Warbler and Long-billed Curlew in their summer range.

Birds associated with Western Water priority habitats that are highly climate vulnerable include:

  • Yellow Warbler (High vulnerability in 3 degrees C warming scenario especially in Oregon, Nevada, Utah, and Arizona. Moderate in summer at both 2 and 3 C)
  • Sandhill Crane (Moderate vulnerability in summer at 2 and 3 C with species projected to shift north and mostly out of the contiguous U.S. range)
  • Long-billed Curlew (High vulnerability rangewide in summer at 3 C including in Colorado, Utah, California, New Mexico. Moderate at 1.5 and 2 C)
  • American Dipper (High vulnerability in winter at 3 C particularly in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, California, and Arizona. Moderate in summer and at 1.5 and 2 C)

Other vulnerable species associated with Western Water andmentioned in the report:

  • Eared Grebe
  • Western Sandpiper
  • Marbled Godwit
  • Mountain Plover
  • Summer Tanager
  • Willow Flycatcher
  • Ridgway’s Rail and Clapper Rail

This is not an exhaustive species list and there’s much more information in the report on the 389 species vulnerable to a changing climate. One key takeaway is that if we reduce emissions by 2050 and hold warming to 1.5 C, we expect 38 percent of the species would come off the climate vulnerable list.

What are the best ways to help birds (and people) in the West?

  • Improve resiliency for healthy watersheds (rivers, wetlands, and lakes);
  • Increase reliability of our water supply (now and in the future) through planning and cooperative, multi-benefit agreements among stakeholders;
  • Fund conservation and clean energy measures at the local, state, and federal levels (ask your elected officials to expand conservation funding and clean energy development in your community);
  • Restore and protect priority habitats;
  • Manage water comprehensively with an understanding of the connections between surface water and groundwater, and more;
  • Sign up for the Western Water newsletter to stay in touch and look for opportunities to help.