Effects of Climate Change on Missouri’s Birds and Other Wildlife

Thomas Bonnot helps explain the relationships between climate and wildlife.

Thomas Bonnot helps explain the relationships between climate and wildlife.

It’s complicated…

Climate change is happening and has already affected wildlife. Adaptation and resilience are achievements that humans can work onto slow down and lessen the affects of climate change. These were some of the key points made by Thomas Bonnot, Research Associate at the University of Missouri and Fellow with the Northeast Climate Science Center, during the second talk on climate change held March 1. About 50 people came to listen to the talk on how climate change affects wildlife.

Bonnot started off telling the audience that answering the question of how climate change is affecting wildlife is complicated and then gave a brief history about the research that has shown definite effects on some species and the predictions for the future based on ongoing research. The issue became a focus for ecologist and the government in 2007 when former vice president Al Gore published “An Inconvenient Truth”. Researchers started brainstorming about what changes were happening: changes in habitat, changes in phenology (timing and synchrony) and changes in vital rates (survival and birth/hatch rates).

Researchers used long-term data sets from Christmas Bird Counts and Breeding Bird Surveys to study data on these changes; what they found confirmed what was being observed. From the data they found changes in bird distribution. There was a general change in latitude as the center of bird abundance moved north across bird species. For example, the center of the range for Turkey Vultures has moved north about 35 miles in the past 50 to 60 years. An example of change in phenology is the Ruby-throated Hummingbird. From 2001 to 2010, the average date of this species’ arrival in the spring is 2 to 3 weeks earlier. Bonnot explained that as temperatures rise, there is an increase in the predation of nests and in certain species such as the Acadian Flycatcher, the species productivity decreases, meaning fewer birds fledge from the nest.

After researchers studied data from the citizen science surveys, they applied models that included factors such as temperature, precipitation or landscape to make improved predictions on changes in the range for different species for the next century, such as what Audubon published in it’s “The Audubon Birds and Climate Change Report”. Bonnot explained that these models are valid, but this is where it gets very complex, because models are based on assumptions that may or not prove to be correct. One assumption about climate chance is that it alters habitat, but predictions can overestimate shifts or underestimate risks. Models can also make the assumption that climate is the only threat to species as changes occur. This is where adaptation and resilience come in. Adaptation is working to provide habitat for species that will lose habitat in the future. Resilience is working to increase a species’ chance of survival, such as reducing fragmentation of necessary habitat.

Bonnot used the prediction for the Wood Thrush population as an example of how the species will be affected by climate change using models and how conserving the Missouri Ozarks and other natural areas will provide habitat for this species.  As a generalist species that can adapt to different habitats, the Wood Thrush population size is predicted to be stable in the next century, but its dispersal will change. The population will decrease in the eastern part of its range and increase in Missouri. The population loss in the east is a result of increased brood parasitism from Brown-headed Cowbirds, while in the Missouri Ozarks the population will increase due to lack of this parasitism. As management continues toward conserving the native habitat of the Ozarks not only the Wood Thrush but other species will disperse from areas where habitat is lost.

Bonnot said there are Comprehensive Conservation Strategies going on to manage public lands. On a personal level individuals can continue to participate in citizen science such as Breeding Bird Surveys and managing private property to benefit wildlife.

Story by: Veronica Mecko


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