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Climate change puts North Carolina birds in trouble, an Audubon Society report says

Not as many varieties of birds will grace North Carolina skies as climate change increases global temperatures, says the National Audubon Society.

The organization of bird protectors released a report Thursday, “Survival By Degrees: 389 Bird Species on the Brink,” on the threats to birds from global warming.

The study says more than 200 species that breed, spend their winters in, or migrate through North Carolina are at risk from climate change.

The study considered eight climate-related threats to birds, including sea level rise, urbanization and false spring. The study concluded that two-thirds of the nation’s birds are at risk if climate change continues at its current pace. The organization’s website will include a link that shows vulnerable birds by ZIP code.

“Climate is the No. 1 threat to birds,” Andrew Hutson, Audubon North Carolina’s executive director, said in an interview. “People ask, ‘What are the bird people doing worrying so much about climate?’ I think this report really shows what’s at stake.”

Greenhouse gases

Audubon North Carolina is asking its members to talk to legislators about climate change and urge them to adopt policies that limit greenhouse gases, Hutson said. The organization has both conservative and progressive members who are united in their interest in birds, he said.

The organization has been active in other ways. It sent out a statement last month applauding Duke Energy for its announced plan to reduce carbon emissions. Audubon North Carolina has also been fighting a controversial bill Duke Energy wants that would allow the state Utilities Commission to approve electricity rates for three years at a time.

For their climate change study, researchers considered what would happen to bird species with warming of 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit and with warming of 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit.

Extreme spring heat is the greatest threat to most species in the state, Curtis Smalling, Audubon North Carolina’s director of conservation, said in an interview.

Many of the breeding bird species in the state live in forests — habitats for bugs that need moisture and birds that eat bugs. Hot springs mean less moisture, fewer insects and birds in trouble, Smalling said.

breeding bird species in the state are what the report calls “climate vulnerable,” with warming at 5.4 degrees, meaning that they are more likely to lose range in the summer than they are to gain. species are climate vulnerable at warming of 2.7 degrees, the study said.

For example, red-headed woodpeckers and brown-headed nuthatches would be gone from the state at the higher temperature, Smalling said, while those birds would still be around with 2.7 degrees of warming.

Wood thrush Phil Fowler

Wood thrush threatened

One of the species most threatened by 5.4 degrees of warming is one of Hutson’s favorite songbirds, the wood thrush.

“It’s a really beautiful bird with an enchanting song,” he said. The wood thrush would do better with a 2.7-degree temperature increase.

“If we do something, these populations will be stable and we will continue to have that song in our forest,” he said.

A study by NC State University researchers published this year found that some birds will thrive when sea level rise creates stands of dead trees, called ghost forests, near the coast. Other birds will leave as the trees die. They based their research on the Albemarle-Pamlico Peninsula.

Smalling said there are always going to be “localized winners and losers.” The Audubon study “tries to take a range-wide look,” he said.

Birds have been in trouble for years. In a study released last month scientists said there are 2.9 billion fewer birds in North America than there were in 1970, The New York Times reported. That’s a loss of more than one in four. The study, published in the journal Science, said the massive losses suggest “multiple and interacting threats.”

The Audubon study demonstrates that what lies ahead may be even more dramatic, Audubon President and CEO David Yarnold said in a statement.

“A lot of people paid attention to last month’s report that North America has lost nearly a third of its birds. This new data pivots forward and imagines an even more frightening future,” Yarnold said.

North Carolina bird watchers have seen the numbers drop in the Audubon breeding bird surveys and Christmas counts, said Smalling.

He called climate change an “existential threat” that will overwhelm conservation efforts.

“All the other effort isn’t effective if climate stability is not there,” he said.