Studies Predict Peril for Alaska’s Feathered Migrants

America’s birds are in trouble, according to two reports out earlier this month from the National Audubon Society and the Department of Interior.  Both documents suggest climate change could have dire effects for many of the birds that migrate to Alaska each year.

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The Boreal owl lives in boreal forests and muskegs across Alaska and the northern parts of he continent. According to a new report, it could lose all of its winter habitat by 2080. Credit John Grahame Holmes/VIREO / National Audobon Society, http://birds.audubon.org/birds/boreal-owl
The Boreal owl lives in boreal forests and muskegs across Alaska and the northern parts of he continent. According to a new report, it could lose all of its winter habitat by 2080.
Credit John Grahame Holmes/VIREO / National Audobon Society, http://birds.audubon.org/birds/boreal-owl

The North American Bird Conservation Initiative’s U.S. committee calls their report for the Department of the Interior a “collective call for action.” It came out alongside a second report from the National Audubon Society that looks at the effect of climate change on the ranges of nearly 600 bird species in North America.  Models used in that study show that more than half those birds could lose up to 50 percent of their habitat as a result of climate change by 2080.

“You know all models are wrong but some models are useful,” says Nils Warnock, executive director of Audubon Alaska.

“If the models are good based on good data, then the trends that we’re seeing should reflect reality to a certain degree.”

Scientists at Audubon used 30 years worth of data collected by citizens from Christmas Bird Count Surveys and a survey of breeding birds in North America too look at various climate factors that impact bird survival. The models include temperature range, precipitation and seasonal changes as well as internationally recognized predicted scenarios for future greenhouse gases.

“There’s different things that could happen,” Warnock explains. “I’ve always loved the analogy that you’re flying on a plane and you see a rivet pop out and are you so worried, well maybe not, but eventually enough of those rivets pop out that’s going to be holding together something pretty critical on that airplane and that’s going to cause that airplane to crash and that’s of course what everybody worries about.  We don’t know exactly what’s going to happen if we lost the Boreal owl.”

According to the Audobon report, the Boreal owl could lose 100 percent of its winter habitat in the next 66 years.  The Bohemian Waxwing stands to lose all of its summer habitat.  Other well-known Alaskan birds that could be affected by a changing climate include those that rely on sea ice, like the spectacled Eider and long-distance migrant shorebirds, like the Bar-tailed godwit.

“They show us and tell us that even though we may have a lot of really fantastic wild habitat in Alaska, our bird populations can easily decrease because of things going on elsewhere in the flyway,” Warnock says.

But the Audubon report also leaves out information about Alaska.

Warnock says that’s because the state lacks a standardized monitoring program mostly due to logistics.

“We have a long history of Christmas bird counts in Alaska, but a lot of our state has no towns, it has no villages,” Warnock says, “and so doesn’t have Christmas bird counts.  The same with breeding bird surveys. They are based on roads and people go out and drive these roads, but Alaska has holes in coverage.”

Warnock says it’s not too late for Alaska’s birds and the larger ecosystem, but he agrees the reports are both “calls to action.”