Can A Little Bird’s Big-Screen Debut Help Tackle Climate Change?

A new video on Wood Thrush migration rallies activists in North Carolina and Belize.

Each spring, birders in North Carolina wait eagerly to hear the melodious song of the Wood Thrush ringing out across forests and leafy clearings. Unfortunately, habitat fragmentation and other threats have caused U.S. populations to decline by more than 60 percent in the last five decades, and the species is also threatened by climate change.

A recent geotagging project by Audubon and Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center has expanded scientific knowledge about the species’ winter range to help protect the whole breadth of its habitat. The project discovered that a thrush tagged in North Carolina by Forsyth Audubon Society wintered in Belize—the first time anyone had documented the migratory path of a Wood Thrush from the state. This February, a team from Forsyth Audubon and Audubon’s International Alliances Program traveled to visit Belize Audubon Society and see where the geotagged Wood Thrush spent its winter.

Joining the team were videographers from the Climate Listening Project, a group that creates short films to showcase personal stories about climate change and resilience. Their new video, released this week, tells the story of the partnership between Forsyth and Belize Audubon and efforts to protect the bird on two continents amid a changing climate.

Following the Wood Thrush South

Belize Audubon manages seven protected areas for birds and other wildlife, spanning habitats that include coral reefs, forests, and wetlands. The group also runs youth birding clubs, trains community bird guides, and partners with government agencies to document climate change impacts and help rural communities adjust to extreme weather such as floods and droughts. It monitors Wood Thrush populations at Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Center, a protected area lush with broadleaf forest that has regrown since British colonists razed it in the 1800s.

Members of Forsyth Audubon first visited Belize in 2014, which sparked an ongoing partnership that helped Belize Audubon transition from paper records to eBird. But the winter 2016 trip was the first time in Belize for Kim Brand, a Forsyth member and bird-friendly communities coordinator for Audubon North Carolina. To her surprise, Brand saw more Wood Thrushes in Belize, including thrushes being banded at Cockscomb Basin, than she does back home in Winston-Salem.

She worried that Belizeans might not be as excited as she is about the Wood Thrush, since it doesn’t sing its elaborate songs in winter and isn’t colorful or flashy like many other birds in Central America. But the people she met were as fond of the bird as she is. One boy in the birding club said enthusiastically to her, “The Wood Thrush? He lives where I live!”

Amanda Acosta, executive director of Belize Audubon, wants to help more people understand why it’s important to protect the Wood Thrush along its full range. “If we want healthy populations of species, we have to protect the entire breadth of the habitat.” Connecting habitats to one another is also key, she says. “If you have biological corridors, then these species can have more resilience, be able to move to [another] habitat if there’s a stress.” She sees the Wood Thrush as a good ambassador for these concepts.

Acosta hears park rangers and tour guides in Belize sharing stories of birds that may already be shifting the timing of their migrations due to climate change and other factors. They share observations like, “I see a Summer Tanager and it’s coming earlier now,” or other birds are arriving earlier in the season and staying longer. It’s not only the Wood Thrush that will have to adapt as temperatures, weather patterns, and habitats change.

Why Partnerships Like These Matter

To address the effects of a changing climate on a broad range of species, Belize Audubon is working with Audubon in the United States to develop a climate action plan for the country. Acosta says she values such partnerships among conservation nonprofits, government agencies, and international groups because they allow people to share scientific information and learn from others’ struggles and successes. Making these connections expands the mandate to protect birds, she says. Otherwise, “people always just see their little backyard, and it’s so much bigger than that.”

For her part, Brand was thrilled to see some familiar species in Belize that visit her backyard each summer. She hopes the connections between Audubon in North Carolina and Belize will continue to grow. Dayna Reggero, producer of the Climate Listening Project, aims to reach a wide audience with the video, including screenings at upcoming film festivals. She shares a passion for birds and other wildlife and says that “videos are a great medium because we're able to share these stories farmer to farmer, birder to birder, and provide a visual tool that can be used . . . to begin or accelerate these types of hopeful, positive conversations on climate.”

Brand echoes the importance of storytelling and making personal connections, saying that scientific knowledge alone is not always enough to motivate people to act. In some past workshops she attended about international bird conservation, she wondered why no one was talking about love for birds—the passion and enthusiasm that make birders keep going out into the field.

“We just really love this bird like crazy. It’s so important to us,” she says of the Wood Thrush. She’s excited to share this story and adds in her optimistic way: “I feel like it’s a bird that moves people to action.”