When Mary Nemecek learned a group of Arctic birds weren’t able to breed because warm weather never arrived in Greenland, she wondered if she would ever see a dunlin, a kind of Arctic shorebird, again.
“I feel like we’re sitting on a precipice where there are some of these species that are fragile, and they’re not that far away from a failed breeding season or two to us not seeing that bird again,” said Nemecek, head of conservation for the Burroughs Audubon Society of Greater Kansas City.
A recent Audubon Society report found two-thirds of North American birds are at increasing risk of extinction because of warming global temperatures.
Climate change and birds are connected in Kansas and Missouri as well. The lesser prairie chicken is considered a threatened species due to effects of climate change.
“(In seasonal reports) I’m constantly writing, year after year after year, it’s the warmest winter on record, or the second warmest winter on record, or the 10 warmest winters on record have been in the last 15 years,” Nemecek said. “A bird that used to migrate to southern Arkansas or northern Texas may not need to go that far now, because it’s much milder here.”
Mark Robbins, an ornithologist with the University of Kansas, has been interested in birds since he was 13 years old. In his time at KU, he’s written a book on birds in Missouri, which mentions climate change is greatly affecting “the status and distribution of birds” in the state.
Robbins wrote that more species are wintering farther north in Kansas and Missouri as winters get warmer.
“There are datasets across the planet that show that birds are arriving on breeding grounds earlier, initiating breeding, building nests, laying eggs and fledgling young earlier than ever before in these last 20 years,” Robbins said.
A specific example is the limpkin, a bird usually restricted to the South but now found in Missouri and Kansas. Robbins said its principal food item, the pearl snail, is moving northward due to climate change, so the limpkin must follow.
“This is kind of shaking up the birding world right now,” Robbins said.
Climate change isn’t fully to blame — habitat loss also affects birds
Robbins says it’s difficult to pinpoint climate change as the cause for everything. He said a decline in local bird populations is mostly attributed to habitat loss, which is only increasing.
Nemecek agrees habitat loss poses an urgent threat to birds, as it affects the entire ecosystem.
“People will talk about, 10 years ago, they used to have turkeys in their neighborhood and now they don’t because subdivisions had been built out,” Nemecek said. “And that’s pushed their habitat further out.”
Robbins says the loss of grassland to crops and urban sprawl not only poses a threat to birds.
“The loss of birds will affect all kinds of things,” Robbins said. “You would have an uptick in insects if you lose these birds, and then we’re concerned about crop yields because we’ve used so many insecticides on these fields.”
Dana Ripper and Ethan Duke founded the Missouri River Bird Observatory a decade ago. Duke says the loss of grassland habitats poses a huge threat to birds.
“Nationally, over the last 60 years or so, grassland birds have declined most precipitously,” Duke said. “We used to have 12 to 13 million acres of unplowed prairie in Missouri, and now we’re down to about 68,000 acres.”
Ripper says climate change and habitat loss are intertwined.
“As habitat has shrunk across the state, if you have extreme weather events (due to climate change), they could knock out a significant amount of the remaining habitat,” Ripper said. “The lack of quality habitat has made our bird populations a lot less resilient in the face of climate change.”
How can we prevent habitat loss and protect birds?
Ripper said there are ways everyone can help in the fight to save birds, like the seven actions recommended by 3billionbirds.org.
BirdSafeKC is one way local groups are protecting birds — it’s a collaborative effort between the Missouri River Bird Observatory and the Burroughs Audubon Society. The group keeps track of bird collisions with windows. This data is brought to the attention of building owners in order to implement safer, less reflective windows.
Kevin Grooms, chair of Missouri’s Sierra Club, says the group is concerned about people having access to nature. He says the work they do benefits not only animals and the environment but people as well.
Over the past year, the chapter focused on the Blue River Glades Natural Area in Kansas City. Their work includes removing non-native bush honeysuckle alongside the trail.
“As far as birds are concerned, this non-native species creates red berries that attract birds for food, but being non-native, it’s actually much less nutritious than a native honeysuckle species,” Grooms said.
Grooms encourages local residents to advocate for nature near their homes.
Ripper and Duke also stressed the importance of being knowledgeable about environmental policies and legislation and how those affect birds.
“Become more knowledgeable about the policy and legislation that’s affecting this, and vote with a conscience,” Duke said. “Whoever you’re supporting in the state legislature, know how they vote on these issues. See if you really align with them, regardless of party politics.”
Nemecek says the time to act on climate change and habitat loss is now. She said she doesn’t feel it’s our right to use resources that future generations won’t have the opportunity to experience.
She says everyone has a stake in preventing bird extinction, and a lot can be lost, along with different species.
“Our very survival depends on an intact ecosystem,” Nemecek said. “There is something about watching nature and experiencing it and having a connection to it. That has been a part of the human experience forever, since the beginning.”
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