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Climate change, habitat loss threaten iconic bird species

Daily Inter Lake | April 29, 2020 7:17 AM

Etched in the early score of Beethoven’s “Pastoral Symphony” are the names of several birds whose songs are reminiscent of various instruments in the piece’s second movement. A flute trill echoes a nightingale’s harmony, which is soon followed by a quail-inspired oboe and both instruments are later joined by a clarinet, which the composer labeled on paper as sounding similar to a cuckoo.

“In my humble opinion, I think birds invented music,” said Dennis “Denny” Olson, a conservation educator with the Flathead Audubon society. “Beethoven. Mozart. Many of their pieces were inspired by the birds we hear all the time, simply walking through our forests. They’re beautiful, they’re distinct.”

And during Montana’s migration season, thousands of residents are eager to once again hear the songs from their favorite species.

During a recent presentation at a Flathead to Lake Initiative meeting, Olson highlighted these local birds and the melodies many recognize and admire. But aside from being nature’s vocalists, Olson called attention to more pressing matters involving bird populations locally in the Flathead Valley and North America, namely their documented disappearance and reasons behind it.

“Very few people know how valuable birds are to us,” Olson said. “At 400 billion in number, they completely balance our ecosystems. Without birds we would be dead and the system would collapse. It would be as simple as that.”

Birds help with pest and insect control and they distribute nutrients and are natural plant pollinators. They work as a clean-up crew scavenging and picking at dead animals until they can decompose into the soil, and studies show they are wildly successful, having survived for an estimated 150 million years longer than humans.

HOWEVER, ACCORDING to troubling statistics from a recent study published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, 3 billion birds have disappeared from North America since the first Earth Day celebration in April of 1970. Olson said overall, the research shows there has been a 29% decline in populations since then.

Researchers analyzed several datasets for the study. These include bird counts from more than 140 weather satellites over the last decade, nearly 50 years of monitoring numbers from bird watchers and other citizen efforts and surveys such as the North American Breeding Bird Survey.

“The largest contributor to this decline is loss of habitat,” Olson told meeting attendees. “If we continue to expand into these animals’ habitats, this decline will continue.”

Olson went on to highlight the vanishing of boreal forests, grasslands, arid lands, agricultural areas and more, which can be witnessed in just about every corner of the world — the Flathead Valley included — as human populations swell and edge farther into wildlife habitats.

Other reasons for the disappearance of birds, Olson said, include collisions with buildings and vehicles, and the consumption of poisons such as pesticides. Another large contributor he said is cats, which are surprisingly estimated to kill nearly 2.5 billion birds annually.

“These are all big deals as well in terms of understanding what has happened to these populations, but they pale in comparison to habitat loss,” Olson said.

ASIDE FROM habitat loss, Olson said it is important to look at how changes in the environment are shaping birds’ homes as well as warming temperatures that prompt birds to search elsewhere for suitable habitat and conditions.

The National Audubon Society has developed a tool called “Survival by Degrees: 389 Bird Species on the Brink.” One can use the website to see which bird populations in certain areas are most vulnerable across their entire range.

The tool allows you to view what might happen to bird species given three separate hypothetical warming scenarios that are typically used by climate scientists for research. One can view a warming of 1.5, 2.0 or 3.0 degrees Celsius and can then see a mix of species with high, moderate and low vulnerability rates.

In Flathead County for example, at a 1.5-degree bump, the website shows the ranges of six local species that are present in the summer will be “highly vulnerable,” including the trumpeter swan and the spruce grouse.

But should the valley experience an overall increase of 3 degrees, the ranges of some 60 species with summer presences will be considered “highly vulnerable,” according to the site. These include the great gray owl, boreal owl, mountain chickadee and several species of woodpeckers and hummingbirds. These don’t account for the additional 100 or so species that fall into the moderate and low vulnerability categories within the 3-degree scenario.

“A lot of our favorite species will become critically endangered,” Olson said. “These projections are pretty bleak and we have to protect them, we don’t have a choice really. They are our natural defense against so many things.”

CERTAIN CONSERVATION efforts, according to Olson, have already made a difference.

For example, species that appear less vulnerable are those that prefer marshes and water. He said this is a testament to conservation and restoration projects in riparian areas that have created ideal, secured habitats.

“The recovery potential of some species is actually pretty great,” Olson said. “If we can straighten things out, they will come back quickly, and some actually have the potential to be better off.”

For the Audubon’s Survival by Degrees Report, scientists studied 604 North American bird species using 140 million bird records, many of which also come from citizen scientists and bird-watchers. According to the website, “we plugged our bird data into the same climate models used by more than 800 experts in 80 counties to map where each bird might live in the future under a changing climate.”

So just because some of the Flathead’s most beloved species may no longer be here in the future, doesn’t mean they are totally extinct. Olson said they may start to see patterns in which the birds stay farther north in cooler climates or they may change their migration patterns so they show up at different times in the year when temperatures are more favorable.

OLSON AND others at the meeting stressed the importance of why the disappearance of birds should be a matter of concern for all residents. Not only do they offer sweet tunes and help our fragile ecosystem churn, Olson said, but they also boost our economy.

“About $90 billion is spent on birdwatching per year in the U.S.,” Olson said. “We see people coming here locally to the Flathead to catch glimpses of the species that are specific to our forests and rivers and wetlands.”

According to several studies, birdwatching is one of the fastest-growing types of outdoor recreation and employs more than half a million individuals.

Olson said Montanans can take several steps to help their local bird populations and all they contribute to our state.

“When it comes time to think about what you want to plant in your yards, consider plant natives,” Olson said. “Having a beautiful flower garden is great, but having natives even in more dense cities like Kalispell and Whitefish can help.”

He also suggested property owners consider conserving and restoring portions of their lands that include creeks and wetlands, adding that several state agencies, including Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks, offer grants for such work. He said pollinator and rainwater gardens are also good add-ons.

A biologist at the meeting encouraged the public to think beyond the realm of climate change as well, bringing focus to land-use planning and zoning.

“We typically have more control over our land than we do over global climate change,” he said. “A lot of science is already suggesting we are one degree warmer so working with local and state governments to maintain open spaces is crucial.”

Along this same vein, Olson stressed the importance of ongoing education in the community.

“A lot is happening. Land uses are changing, land is being developed for residences, migration patterns are already starting to change. With that in mind, education is going to be critical,” Olson said. “We need to continue telling communities and children the importance of birds because they are much more than providers of music.”