Outdoors Sustainability

Climate City: Bird Populations and Why We Should Care

By Joshua Blanco

During one of his presentations, past president of Blue Ridge Audubon Tom Tribble asked an important question: Why should we care about birds? “Because they’re beautiful,” one girl replied. And she wasn’t wrong.

As warm weather sets in, bird-watchers across the country are gearing up to catch a glimpse of their favorite species and admire their natural beauty. But as global temperatures continue to rise, bird species across the state are finding themselves in short supply.

Wood thrush. Photo by Will Stuart

According to “Survival by Degrees: 389 Species on the Brink,” a comprehensive report on the susceptibility of North American bird species to changes in temperature, our birds are in trouble. In North Carolina, 30 percent of bird species are vulnerable to climate change across seasons. And unless we act now, that number will continue to climb. Though Tribble describes it as a “fairly dismal-looking report,” he says there’s reason to be optimistic. If we can stabilize warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, then that should be enough to cut the number of vulnerable species in half. However, if temperatures rise three degrees above pre-industrial levels, we’ll start to see higher vulnerability among our bird populations and, in turn, many will face the threat of extinction.

In Buncombe County, for example, a rise of three degrees Celsius would be enough to make 22 species highly vulnerable to extinction. But if we hold warming to 1.5 degrees, that number drops to four. “Overall, Western North Carolina is probably in better shape than a lot of places in the country,” Tribble says.

This is largely due to the emphasis our community places on conservation practices. In turn, Western North Carolina could be a safe haven for birds that have been displaced as a result of rising temperatures. But, according to the report, irregular weather patterns coupled with extreme heat and heavy rains still pose major threats, and they’re only expected to worsen over time. “Part of what this report does is provide a lens to view climate change,” Tribble says. “Birds are the lens, but climate change is going to affect all of us. We need to protect the Earth for people and we can do that by protecting our birds.” Birds play critical roles in pollination, insect control and forest generation and other ecosystem-related services. They also bolster our region’s booming ecotourism industry.

So why should we care about birds? It depends on whom you ask. But there’s one birder who says it best: “I can throw around all the economic benefits birds have to offer, but they’re creatures in this world just as we are,” Tribble says. “They have just as much a right to live and raise their babies as we do.”

Go to Audubon.org for more information, or to get in touch with your local Audubon chapter. You can also use this website to learn more about bird species in your area and to read the Survival by Degrees report.

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