While warmer temperatures and increased storms are often the focus of climate change stories in the media, the often overlooked byproduct of climate change is the impact it has on animals. Just within these last two weeks, many rare birds have been documented in Ontario due to the crazy wind storm we had on the weekend. These rare birds are often blown way off course and end up somewhere they don’t belong. This is the case with the Green-tailed Towhee (a predominantly Western United States bird) that ended up in London, Ontario, and the Gray-crowned Rosy-finch (a predominantly Western North American bird) that was seen in Marathon, Ontario. These sightings pale in comparison with the Variegated Flycatcher (A bird native to South America) that was spotted in Whitby, Ontario (Only the second time it has been spotted in Canada, the first being in Ontario in 1993).
Birds like the Variegated Flycatcher are not designed for the harsh winters of Canada and have a much harder time surviving in our climates. With a lack of food availability (with the Variegated Flycatcher being an aerial insectivore, feeding predominantly on insects), there is little chance for the birds to stock up enough energy to make the return flight home against such strong forces of nature. For birds such as these listed, climate change introduces another obstacle in an already hard life. Nature Canada found through 63 years of data research that birds are laying eggs earlier, losing valuable habitat, and are arriving from migration earlier while departing later due to warmer temperatures (Nature Canada, 2020).
These changes are caused not only by warming temperatures, but environmental fragmentation as well, causing birds more prevalent in the south to venture farther north in search of suitable habitat (Nature Canada, 2020). Habitat loss and fragmentation is the second largest threat to our survival on the planet to climate change, and yet it also compounds impacts of climate change (UNESCO).
With birds changing their ranges, it opens them up to increased pressure from ecological changes as well as local parasites and competitors. It also allows competitors and prey to become overabundant in the areas they have left (Nature Canada, 2020). As an example, some birds who feed predominantly on forest pests such as Spruce Budworms and Tent Caterpillars, are leaving areas with these insects for areas with more suitable habitat for nest rearing. The result is an increase in these pests due to the lack of their natural predators (Nature Canada, 2020). For some birds, the shift in warmer temperatures and having to find more suitable habitats, leads to a loss of nesting success and, in worst case scenarios, death (Nature Canada, 2020). In other cases, the shift in seasons means that there will not be enough food for hatchlings that are laid earlier in the year.
Whether we like to acknowledge it or not, animals are impacted by our actions more than we
care to think about. While the opportunity to see rare birds in environments that we normally wouldn’t can be an exciting idea for some, the thought that these birds may not survive their new environment diminishes the excitement of simply seeing a rare bird (at least for myself, it does). The impact climate change has on the world, especially the world of birds and bird migration, is a scary yet very real threat we need to take into consideration when determining how we go about both our daily lives as well as our battle against climate change and how we manage or develop our properties.
This is only the beginning of the changing climate, and we can already see the negative impacts it has on our bird populations. If we wish to continue to admire these beautiful creatures in their natural habitats, and if we hope to hear their songs in the spring and summer, and witness their migrations in the fall, we need to be more conscientious of our lifestyles; all it takes is willing people like you and I to make a positive change in the world for the future of these wonderful winged wonders. Even small changes such as keeping more areas natural in our yards, reintroducing native plants and trees, reducing night lighting, and installing thermostats and sensors to regulate our power consumption helps. It is cumulative. Each bird and each action counts.
Written by Xavier Tuson, Conservation Technician with The Land Between charity.
Nature Canada. 2020. How climate change is affecting birds https://naturecanada.ca/discover-nature/about-our-birds/how-climate-change-is-affecting-birds/#:~:text=Birds%20most%20at%20risk%20of,on%20multiple%20habitats%20and%20sites. Accessed 19 Nov 2020.