A Flight Plan for Birds in a Warming World

Audubon's chief scientist is plotting a future for birds. Here's how they could survive.

Gary Langham’s rebellious streak hit when he was 13. It didn’t manifest itself in drug use or fistfights; he simply quit birding. Langham’s father, a botanist, had gotten hooked on birding after discovering the pastime could be fiercely competitive. His nature-loving son—who, at age seven, scored his first solo ID, a Yellow-billed Magpie, in his backyard in Sacramento, California—was swept along for the ride, tallying a life list and vying for top scores in Christmas Bird Counts. “For years I spent every weekend and every vacation in the back of the car,” says Langham, now Audubon’s chief scientist and architect of the organization’s new study on climate and North American birds. “Sometimes we’d drive seven hours, see a rare bird, then drive seven hours right back.” 

By the time he hit his teens, Langham had seen more than 500 species—and had had his fill of the backseat. Old enough to stay home alone, he abandoned birding for two years. A Venezuela birding trip led by his dad pulled him back in. “Three weeks in the jungle, swinging a machete, camping. It was an ideal adventure for a kid,” Langham recalls. “And there were 1,300 species neither of us knew—that leveled the playing field.”  

By 18 he was leading birding tours, often with his dad, and he’d spotted 1,100 species in Venezuela alone before he turned 21. Langham led tours until he was 38, using the gigs to fund a 20-year trek through undergrad, a Ph.D. in ecology and evolutionary biology at Cornell, and a post-doc in Australia, where he first delved into climate modeling, investigating how shifts over millennia affected seven lizard species.

In 2007, when Audubon California was hiring a lead scientist, Langham jumped at the chance. Audubon’s CBC database, which he’d helped build since childhood, was a big draw. “A century of observations no one had mined to forecast how climate change might affect birds,” says Langham, whose post-doc work had been plagued by scant data. “I couldn’t believe it.” In his job interview he proposed using CBC and Breeding Bird Survey data to determine the specific climatic conditions, such as temperature, each species needs to survive. Then, he said, he would feed the info into computer projections of the global climate, pinpointing where the bird could live in the future.

Glenn Olson, then executive director of Audubon California, was sold. “It was totally his idea; he was very passionate about it,” says Olson, now Audubon’s Donal O’Brien Chair in Bird Conservation. With the job in hand, Langham hired climate modeler Bill Monahan and squeezed in the climate work around other responsibilities, like overseeing the state’s Important Bird Areas program. In 2010 they reported that 110 of 310 California species would experience significant range loss by 2100. The results convinced the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to pony up $278,000 for a continent-wide study. 

In 2011, while the project was under way, Langham moved to Washington, D.C., to fill Audubon’s chief scientist position. “Gary is super smart, always positive and engaging. I can’t imagine a better successor,” says former chief scientist Frank Gill, noting how rare it is to have “a scientist who has the skills he does but who is also able to summarize the science succinctly for the public.”

In the new continent-wide study, now under peer review, Langham’s team found that 314 of 588 species are at risk of being “climate-endangered” or “climate-threatened”—that is, they face losing more than half of their range by 2050 or 2080, respectively. Langham’s data visualization specialist, Tom Auer, created range maps for each species, providing at-a-glance summaries of how birds are projected to fare. (All 314 interpretive maps can be seen at climate.audubon.org.) “What does the future sound like?” Langham raises his chin, purses his lips, and lets out a spot-on coo-OO-oo of a Mourning Dove, whose range will expand enormously.

Other species, like the Baird’s Sparrow, could end up with nowhere to go. “The models give us a good idea of which species are most sensitive to the projected change,” says Langham. “But no model is perfect. I fully expect some species will do worse than projected, and some will do better.” For instance, a bird might adapt to a drier climate, but the insects it eats might not. Conversely, a bird might fare better than projected if, say, a predator or competitor currently limiting its range declines.

While the overall forecast is grim, Langham has a knack for inspiring hope. “Gary’s optimism is infectious,” says Justin Scheutz, who led the project’s data-analysis team and oversaw the day-to-day work. “Now I’m optimistic in ways I didn’t think I would be about our capacity to affect the future.”

With the initial modeling work done, Langham's team is preparing to make the data public, hoping to trigger other studies that incorporate added factors, like habitat. And they're identifying priority areas for conservation, the “strongholds” where birds now live that are forecast to be key for multiple species in the future. If they happen to be Important Bird Areas, so much the better. “That is the ultimate can’t-go-wrong,” he says. “You can’t possibly make a mistake saving an IBA that’s also a climate stronghold.”

Langham is also helping devise a new citizen science project, in which the public will see how the predictions for 2020 compare with what’s actually happening on the ground. Those findings will feed into updated models, and help direct conservation. Will his own daughter take part? “Absolutely,” says Langham, adding quickly, “as long as she wants to.”

Editor's Note: As of September 2015, the science in Audubon's Birds and Climate Change Report has been fully peer-reviewed and published in these journals.