The Future for Birds

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Out of 604 species studied by Audubon scientists, 389 are vulnerable to extinction (or, in the coming decades more than half of their current range could become inhospitable). However, if we take action to limit warming, we could help at least 290 of those species (meaning they would retain a significant area of their current territory). Data Visualization: Alex Tomlinson

When towering saguaro cactuses in the Sonoran Desert erupt spectacularly into springtime bloom, winged flashes of red and yellow dart among them. Gilded Flickers flit between flowers like overgrown hummingbirds, lapping up ants and nectar with long, sticky tongues. These large woodpeckers’ lives are wrapped up in those of the saguaro; not only do they dine on insects living in the succulent flesh, but they also hammer out cavities that protect their families from the harsh sun. When they vacate the hollows, Elf Owls, Purple Martins, and Brown-crested Flycatchers move in.

But the Sonoran’s avian real estate developers could go extinct by 2080 if the region grows hotter and drier, creating prime conditions for wildfires that incinerate the flickers’ homes. It’s just one of the sobering findings from Audubon’s report, Survival by Degrees: 389 Bird Species on the Brink, published in October. Using advanced climate models, the report gives an unparalleled view into which birds, and which places, are at greatest risk, providing our best field guide to the future of North American birds.

Under the worst-case scenario, the changes to that future field guide are stark. The shorebird section would be considerably slimmer, since Arctic breeders like Sanderlings and American Golden-Plovers would have largely disappeared, unable to reproduce once temperatures climb too high. Pages of grassland birds such as Baird’s Sparrows and Long-billed Curlews, and woodland specialists like Acorn Woodpeckers and Clark’s Nutcrackers, would be removed as the Great Plains dry out and western forests decline due to drought and wildfire. The artwork would be less colorful with the loss of Blackburnian and Magnolia Warblers and other neotropical migrants that have for millennia flocked to the boreal forest each spring.