Climate Change: Shifting Climate, Shifting Birds

Blue Grosbeak's like this one are typically southern birds, but they are showing up more frequently in Michigan. Photo: Dan Pancamo

Blue Grosbeak’s like this one are typically southern birds, but they are showing up more frequently in Michigan. Photo: Dan Pancamo

By Howard Meyerson

Adam Byrne had the good fortune last year to observe a nesting pair of Blue Grosbeaks. He wasn’t in Tennessee, Florida or other southern state where they commonly sing their songs. He found them in Kalamazoo County—once a rarity, but not anymore. The stocky birds with silver beaks increasingly make appearances in Michigan, in places like Kalamazoo, Allegan County, and the Upper Peninsula.

Fifteen sightings have been confirmed since 2010. Only eight were reported in the decade prior, according to Byrne, Michigan’s Bird Records Committee secretary. Blue Grosbeaks are among the growing list of southern species that people are seeing with some regularity in Michigan, including Chuck-will’s Widows and Summer Tanagers.

“We are seeing (southern) species in higher numbers and more frequently,” affirms Byrne. “They used to be rare, migratory overshoots. Chuck-will’s-Widows have been reported annually since 2005. There are 15 records in the past ten years. Prior to 2005 there were only three confirmed and only one since the 1980s. One shows up in Jackson County every year. It was an incredibly hard bird for anyone to hope to see in the state, and now we have them and can rely on them coming back.”

Shifting Climate, Shifting Species

Scientists studying the effects of climate change suggest Michigan’s long-established mix of breeding birds will shift over time as climate conditions change across North America, affecting what food and habitat is available in different regions. Common southern birds are expected to breed more frequently in Michigan, while some common to Michigan will move north and out of state.


“There is going to be a lot of change in Michigan,” notes Dr. Chad Wilsey, research manager for National Audubon Society’s Climate Initiative and co-author of the organization’s 2014 “Birds and Climate Change Report.” “We predict by 2020 there may be 13 new species in Michigan and 13 species lost. By 2050, there will be 20 new ones—and 26 lost. By 2080, compared to today, Michigan will add 30 new species and have lost 34 species. Michigan is projected to gain quite a few in winter compared to those it loses. It’s an interesting story about species turnover. Climate change isn’t all bad or all good, but it is a story of change.”

National Audubon Society’s “Birds and Climate Change Report” is subtitled “314 Species on the Brink,” and is an in-depth examination of how changing climate conditions may affect North American bird species. It classifies “314 species—nearly half of all North American birds—as severely threatened by global warming.”

What that means, Wilsey says, is that climate conditions are shifting geographically. Areas with suitable habitat for bird species today may not have the climate needed to foster that habitat in 50 years. Will Ontario’s boreal forests shift geographically as climate changes, or the sweeping Great Plains prairies? What isn’t known is just how habitats will shift, how fast, or the degree to which birds can adapt. In some cases birds could face significantly smaller areas of suitable habitat.

“Generally speaking, most species across the U.S. are shifting north,” Wilsey explained. “The centers of (bird) abundance since the 1960s have moved 40 miles north. These findings suggest there will be reduced areas with that climate. For some species the climatically suitable space is shrinking. We don’t know, for instance, if boreal habitat will shift at the same rate that the climate is shifting north.”

Climate threatened or endangered

National Audubon’s report lists 126 species as “climate endangered,” which means they are predicted to lose more than 50 percent of their current range by 2050. Another 188 species are “climate threatened,” meaning they are expected to lose 50% by 2080.

Fifty common Michigan species are listed in the report. Those include the Bohemian Waxwing—predicted to lose 100% of its summer climate range and 52% of its winter climate range. The Baltimore Oriole is predicted to lose only 25% of its summer range but 68% of its winter climate range.

There will be winners and losers, according to Wilsey. Baltimore Orioles, White-breasted Nuthatches, and Hairy Woodpeckers will shift north but still be found in Michigan at the end of the century. Common Loons are projected to shift north and no longer breed in Michigan. The same is predicted for Red-breasted Mergansers.

Baltimore Orioles will move  northwards but still be found in Michigan. Photo: William Norton

Baltimore Orioles will move northwards but still be found in Michigan. Photo: William Norton

Neo-tropical migrants such as the Scarlet Tanager and Connecticut Warbler, both of which breed in Michigan, are likely to breed further north. That’s the prognosis for boreal species too, such as Purple Finches, Pine Siskins, Evening Grosbeaks, and Red-breasted Nuthatches, which currently breed in Michigan.

 What’s to be done?

Chris Hoving, the Michigan Department of Natural Resource’s (DNR) adaptation specialist, called some of the Audubon findings disturbing and said his agency may need to revise how it goes about planning for wildlife.

“Some of those species listed with 100% (range loss), or the high 90s like the Blackburnian Warbler and Evening Grosbeak—those are alarming,” Hoving said. “If the climate envelope for those decreases that much, it’s worrisome. We’ll want to keep tabs on them and put them on an (unofficial) watch list. Right now their vulnerability (in the Audubon report) is projected for mid- or late-century, but our planning documents look out only five years. What I’ll work on for the next couple of years is linking that far future with our (current) planning process.”

Hoving continued, “In the short term what we need to be doing is reversing declines where can have some impact so we have a population surplus that can adapt. That means creating healthy habitat and getting more species off the endangered species list. Those are things we would do anyway, but now we have a new urgency because of climate change.”

Kimberly Hall, the climate change ecologist for The Nature Conservancy, North America, is currently tackling the problem. She is working to identify “resilient” ecosystems called “climate strongholds,” areas that can retain biodiversity as climactic changes alter the landscape. She recently began a three-year study, funded by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. It will produce data and maps that identify the strongholds in the Great Lakes and Great Plains region.

“One of the things that tend to come out highly ranked (as a climate stronghold) in Michigan is river corridors,” Hall explains. “They usually have a little topography which leads to differences in how warm they are. They offer some climatic buffering. And that leads to more potential places for creatures to find a place that works for them.”

Having an inventory of climate strongholds can help determine future land-conservation priorities for the Conservancy and land managing agencies, Hall said.

National Audubon currently uses climate stronghold information to prioritize Important Bird Areas, according to Wilsey. It has an Eastern Forest and Eastern Grassland priority project and is now engaged in a Midwest pilot program with the Minnesota DNR to incorporate those strongholds as priorities in state wildlife action plans, the documents that specify what the agency will do for wildlife species.

Rachelle Roake, conservation science coordinator for Michigan Audubon, called the Audubon report findings “extremely concerning.” Michigan Audubon, she says, is now working locally to restore habitat at some its properties, particularly the Bernard W. Baker, Phyllis Haehnle Memorial, Otis Farm, and Capital City sanctuaries.

“It’s difficult to comprehend what the bird population will look like around here in the future,” Roake said. “Feeder birds like Baltimore Orioles might shift, but we might get an expansion of Orchard Orioles. We’ve already seen reports of Northern Mockingbirds in Michigan and that is likely to increase. “What Michigan Audubon is doing is working to reduce the background risk for these birds. Habitat loss is a big threat. We want to protect more habitats and restore habitat that has been degraded. That work is now taking place on a few of our 19 sanctuaries.”


This story appears in the May/June Jack Pine Warbler, magazine of Michigan Audubon. 

About Howard Meyerson

After more than 30 years in the outdoor writing business, you would think I'd know better.
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