The news on climate this summer has been grim. Not only did an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report paint a depressing future, the dire consequences of unchecked emissions are already wreaking havoc across the globe. Those effects include powerful storms across the eastern half of the United States, and brutal heat that seared the West, killing more than 200 people. It did a number on birds, too.
The temperatures, which exceeded 110°F in places where it rarely gets above 85°F, drove young birds to fling themselves from their nests in a desperate attempt to escape the heat. In Seattle, most of the chicks in a Caspian Tern colony leapt from their rooftop nesting site; Seattle Audubon and Audubon Washington worked with rehabbers to save as many birds as they could, but many chicks died of their injuries. In Portland, more than 100 young raptors—mostly Cooper’s Hawks—did the same, and Portland Audubon Society helped rescue those birds, too.
Compounding the effects of the increasing temperatures, a long-term megadrought now affects the western half of the United States. Water levels are at historic lows, threatening communities, public health, and birds as well as critical ecosystems. In August the Bureau of Reclamation declared reductions in water deliveries to Arizona, Nevada, and the Republic of Mexico. This crisis is urgent for people—their businesses, their families—as well as for birds, a fact that they are telling us loud and clear.
But birds also tell us when we do something right.
The Colorado River is flowing again in its delta. Thanks to the Colorado River binational agreement with Mexico, Minute 323, more than 11 billion gallons of water will be delivered to the area this year for restored habitat. As the latest issue of Audubon magazine reports, with a relatively small amount of water committed to the delta—less than 1 percent of its former annual flow—more than 42,000 acres of riparian forest and wetlands can be protected and restored. In fact, targeted flows through the delta in 2014 led to a 20 percent increase in bird abundance and a 42 percent increase in bird diversity.
Our current water and climate crises are decades in the making, but there is still time to take action and reduce the damage. Good planning is critical to maintaining reliable water supplies for people and nature alike. Focusing on policy changes, research, and on-the-ground actions, we can unify the needs of birds with the water needs of cities and agriculture by helping communities adapt to climate change, reducing pressure on water supplies, and investing in natural climate solutions that absorb carbon pollution. By working together with Indigenous communities, governments, water agencies, and landowners, we can collectively protect birds and create an equitable and sustainable future for us all.
This piece originally ran in the Fall 2021 issue. To receive our print magazine, become a member by making a donation today.