The Future of Birds in Our National Parks

How climate change will affect birds in our country’s most treasured natural places.

Olympic National Park. Photo: Jon Bilous/Alamy

As our climate changes, the bird species we see in our national parks will change, too.

On average, one-quarter of bird species found in a given national park could be completely different by 2050 if carbon emissions continue at their current pace. New research, led by the National Audubon Society and National Park Service and published in the peer-reviewed journal PLOS ONE, underscores the need to safeguard and manage protected lands for birds and wildlife in a changing world.

23%

Projected turnover (change in bird species) a national park could see by 2050, averaged across 274 parks

What change looks like

Some U.S. birds are already altering their behavior and distribution in response to shifts in temperature and rainfall caused by climate change. In this research, Audubon scientists defined the "climate suitability"—the range of temperatures, precipitation, and seasonal shifts each species needs to survive—for each of over 500 North American bird species. Then, using internationally recognized greenhouse-gas emissions pathways, they mapped each bird’s future climate suitability in national parks as the climate changes.

  • Now
  • 2050
 

In each park, many current species will likely continue to find suitable climate through mid-century. However, a park's climate may worsen or improve relative to their needs (represented by Great Egret, Wilson's Warbler, and Nuttall's Woodpecker in the graphic to the left).

For some birds (represented by Blue Grosbeak), climate may become newly suitable in a park—allowing a species to potentially colonize (move into) a place it doesn't currently live.

For others, suitable climate may cease to occur in the future; in this case, the species (represented by American Robin) may either adapt to the new climate or follow suitable climate elsewhere, thus becoming potentially extirpated (locally extinct) from the park.

Our national parks will be increasingly critical sanctuaries for birds seeking suitable climate in new places.

100%

Percentage of 274 parks with more species likely to colonize than be extirpated in winter

For more than a century, national parks have been refuges for vulnerable species and critical habitat. Over the next century—the century of climate change—our national parks will likely grow even more valuable as temperatures warm rapidly and patterns of rainfall shift. Birds navigating a developed American landscape may increasingly rely on parks for safety and survival.

Click on a dot and then on the park's title to explore full park-specific results.

  • Summer
  • Winter

A Vital New Home for Forest Birds in Denali

Since the 1950s, Alaska has warmed twice as fast as the rest of the United States. 

As this trend continues, 40 bird species, including 28 forest birds, could colonize Denali during summer by 2050.

Read more

Many national parks may lose species that currently call them home, particularly in summer.

As many parks grow warmer, birds may be forced to seek suitable climate elsewhere. This is especially true in summer, when many species raise their vulnerable and sensitive chicks. Birds are expected to migrate north and to higher elevations on mountaintops as they follow cooler temperatures.

Click on a dot and then on the park's title to explore full park-specific results.

26%

Percentage of 274 parks with more species likely to be extirpated than colonize in summer

  • Summer
  • Winter

Grassland Birds Vulnerable As Badlands Heats Up

By 2050, hotter conditions may trigger declines in grassland species that breed at Badlands in summer.

Preserving healthy grasslands will give all birds the best chance possible.

Read more

Some migratory birds may remain in certain parks year-round.

7

Average number of migrants that may overwinter per park

In fall, many North American birds undertake spectacular southbound migrations. Some fly hundreds or thousands of miles to the southern United States or the tropics to escape the winter cold and seek abundant food. By 2050, some national parks may be warm enough that birds cut their migrations short and overwinter there instead.

A Winter Haven For Birds In Shenandoah’s Forests

Warming temperatures could invite 43 species to colonize Shenandoah in winter by 2050.

These include several bird species that currently breed or migrate through the park, and may begin overwintering there, too.

Read more

Change is much less drastic with reduced future emissions and warming.

Birds and parks will undergo less change and less stress if we reduce future carbon emissions. Rates of species turnover, potential colonizations, and extirpations are all greater with higher emissions. Audubon will continue to support genuine, bipartisan leadership and action by government and corporations that delivers a future powered by clean energy.

Join the National Audubon Society as well as your local Audubon chapter. Together we can advocate for clean-energy policies at the municipal, state, and federal level.

We also must protect and enhance our national parks and all public lands in the face of disruption already caused by climate change. These treasures, with rich natural and cultural history, are critical conservation tools of the future.

8%

Low-emissions pathway

25%

High-emissions pathway

Percent of parks with more than 25% of summer bird species in danger of extirpation by 2050

 

Photos from top: Tim Rains/NPS; NPS; Brett Raeburn/NPS; Marc Barrison/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); Michael Quinn/NPS; Stephen Saks/Alamy; Drew Tarvin/Flickr (CC BY 2.0); Robert Fried/Alamy; Patrick Lynch/Alamy

Website design led by John Mahoney. Data visualizations by Stamen Design. Website content led by Hannah Waters. Other Contributors: Madison Cole, Sean Cooley, Sarah Friedman, Garrison Frost, Elizabeth Gustafson, Martha Harbison, Joey Kahn, Amali Knobloch, Alana Moriarty, Ashley Peters, Purbita Saha, Lotem Taylor, Chad Wilsey, and Joanna Wu. Additional Thanks To: Matt Anderson, Lia Bocchiaro, Nicolas Gonzalez, Heather Hahn, Kristin Hall, Lisa Hardaway, Lynne Hoppe, Kenn Kaufman, Chloe Kersoff, Geoff LaBaron, Christine Lin, Tebello Marumo, Larry Perez, Liz Pomper, Gregor Schuurman, Loren Smith, and Justin Stokes.

Golden-winged Warbler. Photo: Arni Stinnissen/Audubon Photography Awards