A gull feather lies on the dry tidal flats next to San Francisco Bay, California. Photo: Gordon Wiltsie/National Geographic Creative

Birds in the News

The West’s Water Crisis Is Still Really Bad for Birds

Climate change and water diversion are drying up essential wildlife sanctuaries for migrating and local birds.

As climate change continues to intensify drought conditions in the western United States, birds suffer the consequences. California provides essential stopover sites for birds migrating along the Pacific Flyway—a 4,000-mile route millions of birds use to head south every year. Songbirds, seabirds, and shorebirds rely on the region’s bountiful resources, but these resources are increasingly fewer and farther between, as National Geographic reports.   

Although global warming is the most pressing challenge at the moment, water resources in California have been a concern since the early 1900s—that’s when the state began diverting water from the valley and damming the rivers for agricultural and commercial use, Audubon California’s executive director Brigid McCormack writes in an op-ed piece for the LA Times. Over time, more than 90 percent of the previously insect swarming, plant-bearing wetlands have turned to dust and parched earth—Los Angeles’ Owens Lake was a prime example.

In a previous article, Audubon reported that city officials opened an aqueduct in 1913 that diverted water from Owens Lake’s feeder streams to the growing city 200 miles away. This transformed Owens Lake into a 110-square-mile dust bowl. But, thanks to a $1.2 billion wetlands restoration project, the lake has now been significantly restored and serves as a stopover site for migrating birds once again.

Swapping food-rich wetlands for barren landscapes obviously has a huge impact on birds. Here are some species that are most affected:

1. Eared Grebes, Wilson’s and Red-necked phalaropes, and other migrating waterbirds rely on the invertebrate-rich salty water of Mono Lake in Eastern Sierra. But even though Los Angeles has slowly reduced its take, it cannot supersede the drought, causing a 38-foot drop in this oasis since the city began diverting its tributary streams in 1941.

2. The Salton Sea on the San Andreas Fault, which provides wintering habitat for White Pelicans and Mallards, has shrunk significantly and continues to recede, threatening many species of waterbirds that rely on this large body of water in a dry landscape.

3. Snow Geese, along with Ross’ and White-fronted geese, suffered drastically—and continue to suffer—when water supplies to refuges in Klamath Basin were cut off in 2011-2012, leaving the Lower Klamath reserve at its driest in 70 years.

Fewer birds stop to rest and refuel at this drying oasis (left) as the water supply dwindles in the Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge (right). Infograph: Emily M. Eng, NG Staff; Vistoria Sgarro

4. Cassin’s Auklets that nest and raise their young on the Farallon Islands are unable to feed their babies—resulting in the death of tens of thousands of newborn chicks.

5. Not surprisingly, California’s own Tricolored Blackbirds have also been affected. As their preferred breeding grounds disappear, these birds are forced to nest in farm fields where agricultural practices threaten their livelihood. The Tricoloreds were emergency listed as a state endangered species last December (a listing that expired in June) after a whopping 44-percent decline since 2011. 

6. Even local owls and raptors that are less water dependent are suffering as a result of the deficient food chain.

“With wildlife refuge water supplies low or depleted in the Central Valley, birds will struggle to find the water and food they need to survive and build fat resources for the winter,” says Andrea Jones, Audubon California’s director of bird conservation. “Unless the rain comes this fall, we will be faced with another year where birds are stressed or dying due to our drought conditions.”

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