(09-09) 16:04 PDT San Francisco —
Dozens of Bay Area birds, including owls, hawks, shorebirds and signature species like the brown pelican, golden and bald eagle, are in jeopardy because of climate change, a study by the National Audubon Society revealed Tuesday.
The seven-year study of North American birds found that more than 300 avian species – more than half the birds in North America – will be in dire straits by 2080 unless something is done to reduce carbon emissions.
The list of birds on the brink included common Bay Area birds like American Avocets and Marbled Godwits. The Willet, commonly seen on the San Francisco Bay shoreline, would also be facing long odds by the end of the century, as would many local ducks, gulls, hummingbirds and grebes, the report states.
The outlook is particularly bad for already endangered or threatened species like the California least tern and clapper rail, according to the Audubon model.
“What the science is really showing us is that climate is the most serious threat to birds on the continent,” said Cindy Margulis, the executive director of the Golden Gate Audubon Society. “We could lose half of all the species on the continent just from climate change, and that’s not even considering all the other threats. So that is a serious wake up call. If we don’t do something now it is going to be too late for the birds and for us.”
Audubon Society researchers used 40 years of data collected during annual Christmas bird counts and U.S. Geological Survey summer breeding surveys and compared the information with national climate data. The resulting model, which will be published in peer reviewed journals, is the most detailed study ever done on how a changing climate will affect birds, which scientists regard as a key indicator species of ecosystem health.
The results, which project bird populations 66 years from now, provide a startling picture of a world wracked by changing weather patterns and huge ecosystem imbalances as species migrate from place to place struggling to adapt and survive.
The issue is particularly salient in California where the landmark climate change initiative, AB32, was passed in 2006. The state has since implemented the country’s first cap-and-trade program with the goal of reducing carbon dioxide emissions by at least 17 percent over the next decade.
The problem, however, requires a global response and only California has acted. Despite measurable sea level rise and melting Arctic ice, a national campaign funded largely by oil and gas interests has been launched to infuse doubt into climate science. Republicans in Congress have refused to even consider legislation.
The U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is predicting huge impacts, including species extinctions and at least a 2-foot rise in the sea level over the next 100 years, if world leaders do not act to curb carbon emissions.
Of the 588 species Audubon studied, 314 are likely to find themselves in jeopardy by 2080, according to the report. Dozens of avian species across the country – including songbirds, raptors, waterfowl and waders – could actually be facing extinction.
Brown pelicans, which are regularly seen diving for fish off Stinson Beach, are among the species in California that are in danger, according to the report. Sea level rise and changing ocean conditions in Mexico, their summer nesting grounds, could impact their breeding success. The brown pelican, which was near extinction in the 1970s from DDT poisoning, has made a remarkable comeback and was removed from the U.S. Endangered Species list in 2009.
The American white pelican is also in peril. They may not be able to find enough fish to sustain their young in the warming inland lakes and river systems where they breed, Audubon officials said.
Both golden and bald eagles, both prevalent in the Bay Area, could find it exceedingly difficult to find prey by 2080, the report said. Hotter, drier conditions in the Altamont region, which supports the highest density population of golden eagles in the world, could lead to a reduction in the raptor’s prey.
The report predicts that the golden eagle, which has a territorial range of 70 miles, will lose 41 percent of its breeding range and 16 percent of its non-breeding range.
“Golden eagles are ferocious predators of rodents. They naturally control the rodent pests for us,” said Margulis, explaining the effect their loss could have on humans. “Birds are also pollinators, seed distributors and insect controllers. Without birds, we could get catastrophic swarms of insects.”
Warming temperatures would leave the bald eagle with only 26 percent of its current breeding range by 2080, according to the climate models. Bald eagles also suffered serious declines because of pesticides and hunting, but rebounded after DDT was outlawed. The species was removed from the Endangered Species List in 2007.
Also imperiled by climate change will be the American Avocet, a white and black bird that turns an apricot color during breeding season, according to the Audubon report. It breeds along San Francisco Bay. The yellow-billed magpie, which is only found in California and is often seen in the Sunol area, may also be in trouble before the end of the century.
Other Bay Area avian types on the at-risk list include Black Oystercatchers, Marbled Godwits, American Kestrels, Swainson’s Hawks, Northern Harriers and Burrowing Owls.
The report, which covered Alaska, Canada, and the lower 48 states, classified 126 of the 314 at-risk species as climate endangered, meaning they are projected to lose more than half of their current range by 2050. The other 188 species are classified in the report as climate threatened and are expected to lose more than 50 percent of their current range by 2080 if global warming continues at its current pace.
“Birds are very highly tuned, extremely sensitive and intricately involved with the climates where we find them,” Margulis said. “Once we start to change where the birds can actually survive, we cause disconnects between where the birds are and where their prey is. As these systems get increasingly out of whack, the species will not be able to adapt fast enough.
The bottom line, she said, is “if we don’t act, our grandchildren will never forgive us. I promise you that.”