Press Room

Audubon and National Park Service Predict Major Changes for Birds in a Warming World

As our changing climate pushes birds out of historic ranges, America’s national parks could see an influx of newcomers and the departure of familiar species by 2050.

NEW YORK — According to a groundbreaking study published today by scientists from the National Audubon Society and the National Park Service, on average, 25 percent of the bird species found in some of America’s most well-known national parks could be completely different by mid-century because of a changing climate. The peer-reviewed study appears today in PLOS ONE and delivers another sobering reminder of the threat climate change poses to birds.

The study authors analyzed 274 sites managed by the National Park Service and overlaid them with climate suitability models for birds known to spend summers and winters within the parks. The suitability models were then linked to two different trajectories of greenhouse gas emissions representing low and high emissions paths. The low-end pathway incorporates the most stringent mitigation scenario where the high-end represents our current trajectory.

In scenarios with lower carbon emissions there are fewer projected changes found in parks. But on the high end of emissions—or "business as usual"—Bald Eagles may leave the Grand Canyon during the winter and Mountain Bluebirds may stop breeding in Badlands National Park over the summer.

“These drastic climate projections underscore the important role our national parks play as habitat for birds, today and tomorrow” said Joanna Wu, Audubon biologist and lead author on the study.

“Scenarios with lower greenhouse gas emissions result in a lower average bird turnover. If we want to reduce the impact in these protected places, lowering carbon pollution is an integral part of the equation,” Wu added.

Because more birds have the potential to move into national parks than move out, public lands will continue serving as important bird habitat despite a changing climate. Each site will receive a “climate brief,” which outlines which bird species are currently found within the park, which new species may colonize the park and which current species may be locally extirpated.

“With new birds coming in and familiar birds heading out, the stewards of America’s public lands will need to prepare for substantial changes in the near future,” said Gregor Schuurman, National Park Service ecologist and the study's co-author.

The parks are grouped into five trend groups: High turnover overall, High potential extirpation, High potential colonization, Intermediate change, and Low change. Understanding the characteristics of the trend groups will serve to inform the management of individual parks for the benefit of the entire National Park System.

“Helping our staff understand these potential changes and incorporate climate change into resource management will benefit the birds that will increasingly rely on our national parks. This information will also inform work in parks and with neighboring communities to support and enhance recreational birdwatching,” Schuurman continued.

In 2014, Audubon published its Birds and Climate Change Report. That study shows that more than half of the bird species in North America could lose at least half of their current ranges by 2080 due to rising average global temperatures. That report highlighted the importance of protecting climate “strongholds,” which are areas where a bird species is expected to have the best chance at surviving climate change, including many found on public lands.

“It’s more important than ever to get on the path to clean energy solutions as we get a clearer picture of how our changing climate will impact birds and the places they need,” said Matthew Anderson, vice president of Audubon’s Climate Initiative, a nationwide effort to mobilize Audubon’s politically diverse membership to speak up for birds in a warming world.

“Climate change is the biggest threat to birds, and it’s long past time that our climate policies reflect that. Audubon will continue working with leaders on both sides of the aisle to find meaningful solutions.”

Today’s study sends another clear message to the 1.2 million Audubon members from all across the political spectrum.

“We have two tasks: preserve our national parks and public lands as refuges for birds in a warming world and protect what has often been called America’s best conservation idea from the sources of climate change,” said David Yarnold (@david_yarnold), president and CEO of the National Audubon Society.

“It’s hard to imagine the Grand Canyon without Bald Eagles soaring over the Colorado River, but that’s our future if we don’t listen to what birds tell us. Our national parks provide homes for countless birds, and while they can’t vote, millions of American visitors to our parks can. It’s time to act on climate locally, in our states and in Washington.”

To get a glimpse of how climate change will impact the birds in some of our most iconic National Parks, please read the seven case studies below:

1) Denali National Park: Birds Seek Refuge in the North

Since the 1950s, Alaska has warmed rapidly—twice as fast as the rest of the United States—and Denali National Park and Preserve’s landscape is keeping pace. As it continues to warm, and the frequency of summertime snow drops, 40 bird species could move in during summer. By 2050, Denali visitors may see forest birds like Western Tanagers, Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, and Rose-breasted Grosbeaks breeding in the park, along with Magnolia, Canada, and other warblers seeking refuge in this cooler, northern forest. To prepare for the potential influx of species, park managers might consider managing for a diversity of habitats accordingly.

2) Rocky Mountain National Park: Mountaintop Forests in Flux

Each peak in Rocky Mountain National Park is home to a unique collection of forests, which will likely be stressed by climate change. By mid-century, the park’s climate is projected to improve for birds that live in dry forests at mid-elevation, like the Western Tanager, Pygmy Nuthatch, and Red-naped Sapsucker, and worsen for birds in cooler, wetter, high-elevation forests, like the American Three-toed Woodpecker, Pine Grosbeak, and Townsend’s Solitaire. It is recommended that park managers track bird populations and preserve rarer forests types where possible.

3) Grand Canyon National Park: Raptorial Turnover

By 2050, visitors might find a novel combination of raptors soaring over Grand Canyon National Park, a raptor corridor and global Important Bird Area. The White-tailed Kite, Gray Hawk, and Harris's Hawk may colonize the park. Golden and Bald Eagles, however, are expected to decline, with the latter possibly going locally extinct. The park’s pinyon and juniper forests could also be stressed by warming and drying conditions, threatening specialist birds like the Pinyon Jay and Pygmy Nuthatch. Much will depend on the continued flows of the Colorado River, where Bald Eagles congregate and hunt, and how that waterway continues to be managed.

4) Yellowstone National Park: Western Waters Drying Up

Yellowstone National Park is currently home to a plethora of songbird species that nest on willows growing alongside western rivers. Suitable climate is projected to persist for several of these riparian songbirds, such as the Yellow Warbler, Song Sparrow, and Willow Flycatcher, a priority species for the park. But it may grow too dry and hot for others, such as Wilson’s Warbler, Warbling Vireo, and Lincoln’s Sparrow. Because these species are willow-dependent, park managers can continue to protect natural systems—including supporting large carnivores and beavers, both of which promote healthy streamside willows beneficial to riparian songbirds.

5) Badlands National Park: Grassland Bird Vanishing Act

Best known for its rugged formations, Badlands National Park is also a birding destination for its grassland species. By 2050, hotter conditions may trigger declines in grassland birds that breed there in summer, such as Upland Sandpiper, Horned Lark, and Burrowing Owl. The Mountain Bluebird may be extirpated from the park. Meanwhile, species more adapted to the arid Great Plains, including the Mississippi Kite, Northern Bobwhite, and Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, and the Southwest, like Scaled Quail, Cassin’s Kingbird, and Chihuahuan Raven, may thrive within its borders. Preserving healthy grasslands will give all birds the best chance possible.

6) Acadia National Park: A Songbird Exodus

Maine’s Acadia National Park straddles eastern-deciduous and northern-boreal forests, attracting breeding songbirds, including nearly two-dozen warbler species, in summer. By 2050, as the climate warms, many boreal songbirds, including Bay-breasted Warblers, Blackburnian Warblers, and Boreal Chickadees, may breed in cooler forests north of the park’s borders. At the same time, Acadia’s wetlands, lakes, and coastline are poised to grow more crowded. Waterbirds like the American Bittern and Pied-billed Grebe may skip their southbound migrations and winter in Maine instead. And Maine’s beloved Common Loon might stop breeding in Acadia. It is recommended that managers maintain wetlands and continue to track breeding warblers.

7) Shenandoah National Park: A Winter Haven

Forests of various types cover 95 percent of Shenandoah National Park, and they invite a variety of birds to visit year-round—whether they breed in summer, migrate through in spring and fall, or spend the winter. As forests warm, a number of birds that breed in Shenandoah at the southern end of their range, including thrushes and warblers, might cease finding suitable climate in the park. In winter, though, the park’s climate may become suitable for 43 species, which could colonize the park. These include several birds, like the Common Yellowthroat and Vesper Sparrow, that currently breed or migrate through Shenandoah, and may begin wintering there, too.

To learn more about these parks and others, please visit www.audubon.org/NPS.

To read the study: Wu et al. (2018) Projected avifaunal responses to climate change across the U.S. National Park System. PLOS ONE.

Audubon is encouraging its 1.2 million members and supporters to urge their members of Congress to fully and permanently reauthorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which has provided funding to protect habitat in every state and in nearly every National Park.

To learn more about Audubon’s Climate Initiative, please visit www.audubon.org/climate.

The National Audubon Society protects birds and the places they need, today and tomorrow, throughout the Americas using science, advocacy, education and on-the-ground conservation. Audubon's state programs, nature centers, chapters and partners have an unparalleled wingspan that reaches millions of people each year to inform, inspire and unite diverse communities in conservation action. Since 1905, Audubon's vision has been a world in which people and wildlife thrive. Audubon is a nonprofit conservation organization. Learn more how to help at www.audubon.org and follow us on Twitter and Instagram at @audubonsociety.

Media Contacts (photos available upon request):

Nicolas Gonzalez, National Audubon Society, ngonzalez@audubon.org, (212) 979-3068.

Gregor Schuurman, National Park Service, gregor_schuurman@nps.gov, (970) 267-7211.

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