How we can help birds against climate change


The birds we see most often today might be different from the ones we’ll see decades from now. The climate is changing and is expected to continue to do so in the future. Some species will have to move if they want to continue enjoying the same climate as today. But areas that will have ideal conditions may not have their preferred habitat, forcing them to make a tough decision.

In addition, some face other threats such as agricultural intensification, pesticide contamination, abandonment of traditional land uses or the development of wind farms. These threats could be added to that of the climate, putting them in difficulty. Fortunately, there are tools such as protected spaces that can help cushion these impacts.

Thus, climate change, habitat availability, and protection from other threats could determine which birds will be more common in the future. Where can we find them too? We have just published a book in which we analyze these trends and predict the future of 68 common species in mainland Spain by the middle of the 21st century.

Win and lose birds

Birds in Spain are reacting to climate change in various ways. Over the past twenty years, some species have been favored and others harmed by global warming.

The Eurasian Cisticola, Sardinian Warbler and Greenfinch share a preference for warm environments. This is probably the reason for the increase in their abundance recorded in recent decades. Moreover, the predictions assume that they will continue to grow in the future, with some of them benefiting from climate change.

The skylark, on the other hand, prefers the coolness of the mountains. During the breeding season, it nests in grasslands, meadows or moors above 1500 m altitude. But global warming will worsen the climate of the moors where it is more abundant today. It will therefore have to be content with sub-optimal climatic conditions which will make its populations less numerous.

some are lucky

The Great Tit also prefers the cool environments of montane forests. As for the skylark, models predict that the climate will reduce their populations. However, SEO/BirdLife records from 1998 indicate otherwise: their populations have been slowly increasing ever since.

Paradoxically, his salvation can be closely linked to the human being. As its name suggests, the garrapino primarily inhabits coniferous forests. For this reason, the increase in forest area recorded in Spain due to rural abandonment could compensate for the limitations imposed by the climate.

In fact, the Great Tit isn’t the only lucky species. Other forest birds such as Pileated Woodpeckers, Eurasian Jays, Papalbo’s Warblers, Black-capped Warblers, Wrens, Nuthatches, Song Thrushes and Charlo Thrushes could suffer the same fate. While global warming will make their survival more difficult, the increase in their preferred habitats will work in their favour.

Impact of climate change on birds

To predict the impact of climate change on birds, we need to know what temperature and precipitation conditions they prefer. To study and model species preferences, we look at where they are currently most abundant.

In this case, we have the field data collected by hundreds of volunteer observers who collaborate with the SEO/BirdLife SACRE program. Their surveys have made it possible to study the evolution of common breeding birds in Spain, year after year, since 1998.

Thanks to this type of data, we know that the European Bee-eater and the Barn Swallow are more abundant in hot and dry areas. And that the Great Spotted Woodpecker prefers cooler and wetter regions. Additionally, we know that the Dartford Warbler selects brushy areas. And that the greatest abundances of the buitrón cistícola occur in reedbeds, rushes and cereal fields.

To predict how species will cope with climate change, we use mathematical models. With them, we relate the abundance of each species to the temperature and rainfall recorded at each location. We then use these models to predict what the abundance of the species will be in the future climate. This way we can know if an increase or decrease in their populations is expected and where these changes will occur.

Mitigating the effects of climate change

Certain strategies can help conserve bird species that will be most affected by climate change.

On the one hand, the development or maintenance of certain types of habitats in places benefiting several species can be favored. For example, high grasslands will favor the survival of the lark in its climatic refuges in the central and Betic systems. The availability of these spaces could thus compensate for the negative effect of climate change.

Another strategy is to design protected areas aimed at preserving the birds of tomorrow. Some of the areas that will be particularly important for bird conservation in the future are poorly protected. An example is Galicia, which will become a climatic refuge for certain species in decline, such as the carrion crow, which has a suitable but poorly protected habitat.

In the book we show the responsibility that each Autonomous Community will have in the conservation of the common birds of the future. The results suggest that some should make an extra effort to manage the territory and design protected areas.

What seems clear is that climate change will not affect all birds equally. In thirty years, some species will be rarer and others more common. But it also seems clear that not only time will count, which opens a window of hope for the most unfortunate. They will have to adapt to the new conditions and we can contribute to their success.

Character font: Sara Villén Pérez / David Palomino Nantón / Luis M. Carrascal / THE CONVERSATION

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