When the Louisiana state legislature declared the Brown Pelican its state bird in 1966, it was not in homage to a flourishing estuarine species, but more a commemoration of a charismatic coastal bird that had become all but a ghost. Two decades of DDT had devastated the population across its range, leaving the birds teetering on the edge of extinction. It took a ban on DDT followed by an ambitious reintroduction program to bring the birds back from the brink, resulting ultimately in their removal from the endangered species list in 2009 and marking one of the most successful conservation stories in North America.
“The Brown Pelican has always been a symbol of Louisiana,” says David Muth, director of the National Wildlife Federation’s Gulf Restoration Program. “They’re these big, ungainly, kind of comical-looking birds at the top of the food chain. The amazing spectacle of a line of pelicans feeding, soaring along and then doing that spectacular dive into a school of fish endears them to us, making them a part of what we feel attached to when it comes to great estuary systems like coastal Louisiana.”
While the DDT chapter may now be closed, a new ominous danger threatens to permanently alter the plot: climate change. As humans pump 35 billion metric tons of carbon into the air every year, the Brown Pelican is one of several state birds that could be pushed so far out of their range that they may become scarce in the state that claims them as a symbol.
“We have more coastal wetlands in Louisiana than in all 48 lower states,” Muth says. “The reality is that coastal Louisiana is going to feel the effects of sea level rise first. The effect on Brown Pelican populations, especially in the northern Gulf, is going to be profound if we don’t take action now.”
According to a 2015 study by the National Audubon Society, nearly half of North America’s birds could lose most of their current home range within this century as climate change shrinks and shifts their ranges. The study finds that 126 of the 588 bird species included in the study, including the Brown Pelican, are climate-endangered, meaning they will lose more than 50 percent of their current range by 2050.
National Audubon Society predicts that another 188 species, considered climate-threatened, have a little longer to hold on but will lose more than 50 percent of their current range by 2080 if global warming continues at its current pace.
Nine state birds included in this study are considered climate-threatened (Idaho and Nevada’s Mountain Bluebird, Maryland’s Baltimore Oriole, New Hampshire’s Purple Finch and Vermont’s Hermit Thrush) or climate-endangered (Louisiana’s Brown Pelican, Minnesota’s Common Loon, Pennsylvania’s Ruffed Grouse and Utah’s California Gull).
“It is not cliché to say that everything is connected,” says Marc Devokaitis, public information specialist at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. “If birds, which have successfully made their way in the world for millions of years, are unable to adapt and thrive under these new, rapidly changing conditions, what hope is there for any of us? We are facing planetary conditions—carbon dioxide levels, for starters—not seen since the time of the dinosaurs.”
Even where climate change may not be directly pushing birds out of their traditional range, it is clearly exacerbating other threats to North America’s birds. A study by the U.S. Geological Survey, for example, found that local climatic variations directly impact the breeding performance of Colorado’s state bird, the Lark Bunting, which is already at risk from habitat loss to agriculture.
In addition to habitat loss and suitability, desertification in arid regions, prey abundance, and competition as the result of a change in moisture regimes, also become more threatening because of climate change, says Andrew Rothman, director of the American Bird Conservancy’s Migratory Bird Program.
A Trek Turned Treacherous
This is all especially bad news for migratory birds, which spend part of their annual cycle on perilous journeys across ocean and land, relying on good weather and healthy stopover habitat replete with food sources to fuel their way.
“The breeding success of migratory birds is not only influenced by the condition of habitat on the breeding grounds, but also the condition of habitat on the wintering grounds,” Rothman says. “As climate change increases temperatures, and decreases moisture in many habitats, the body condition of many birds will be decreased. This is likely to show up in decreased reproductive success in the future.”
A Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center study published in March of 2017 looked at how climate change during a migratory bird’s annual cycle influences survival, reproduction and cues the birds use to time migrations. The researchers found that of 46 species of migratory birds that breed in the United States’ Upper Midwest and Great Lakes region, 10 are highly vulnerable to climate change, while 34 are moderately vulnerable.
One of the moderately vulnerable migratory species in the Smithsonian study—and climate-threatened species in the Audubon study—is the Baltimore Oriole, Maryland’s beloved state bird, designated such because of the colors it shares with Lord Baltimore’s coat of arms. The state’s major league baseball team is named after the Baltimore Oriole, which has already experienced population declines from Dutch elm disease, which has wiped out the birds’ homes in elm trees.
“Birders in our state already bemoan the population reduction in the Baltimore Oriole, along with many other species, particularly insectivorous migratory birds,” says Barbara Johnson, president of the Maryland Ornithological Society. “If the population of Orioles continues to slide, fewer and fewer Marylanders will get to know this bird with its startling colors and interesting life cycle. As the Baltimore Oriole goes, many other species will disappear along with it.”
The Hermit Thrush, Vermont’s state bird, like the Baltimore Oriole, is a migratory bird that may lose more than 50 percent of its breeding range by 2080, according to the National Audubon Society. The Hermit Thrush was chosen as Vermont’s state bird in 1941 and migrates to the Southern United States in the winter. Bruce MacPherson, president of the Green Mountain Audubon Society, seems hopeful that changes in habitat due to climate change might actually allow the expansion of the Hermit Thrush’s wintering range to include Vermont.
“The Hermit Thrush’s appearance is not flashy like many songbirds, but its melodic, melancholy song is beautiful, almost unworldly, and characteristic of the northern forest,” MacPherson says. “It is claimed that there are few Vermonters in heaven because so many of them prefer to live in Vermont. The heavenly song of the Hermit Thrush is one reason for that preference.”
Battling the (Climate Change) Beast
Maryland, Vermont and many other states are putting into place measures to help protect not only their state birds, but those that face a multitude of threats to their existence. The Vermont House recently passed bill H.233, which requires regulators overseeing development projects to minimize forest fragmentation, leaving the birds with more habitat to move into. In 2016, Maryland became the first state to ban insecticides that kill insectivores, reducing one major threat to the Baltimore Oriole.
But the reality is that addressing the patchwork of threats to state birds and others, in addition to tackling climate change, requires a comprehensive, global effort.
“Unfortunately, the solutions to climate change are not easy, and they are not fast,” ABC’s Rothman says. “As such, solutions for climate change adaptation are rooted in conducting continual good habitat management for birds, and require reduction of climate-change-causing actions.”
Louisiana has accepted the challenge.
The state is poised to begin the largest restoration project in the world, funded by the billions of dollars from the 2010 settlement of the BP oil spill litigation. The project will create marsh and wetlands habitat, restore barrier islands and build new land to offset the land lost to sea level rise. The state has already lost more than 1,900 square miles of land since the 1930s and will probably lose as much as 2,000 additional square miles over the next 50 years without this coastal restoration master plan. The state legislature is currently in the process of approving an update to the $50 billion, 50-year plan.
Several environmental organizations, including the National Wildlife Federation, National Audubon Society, Environmental Defense Fund, The Nature Conservancy, the Ocean Conservancy, local Louisiana NGOs and others are helping to ensure the plan is implemented, in part to ensure habitat both for Brown Pelicans to nest and for Brown Pelican prey to thrive.
This means that despite the climate change odds, Louisiana’s state bird may have a shot at continuing to thrive within state lines.
“We’re not sitting by as we did in the ‘40s and ‘50s watching the population crash,” NWF’s Muth says. “We’re taking proactive measures here to try to hold onto some habitat for Brown Pelicans. I’m guardedly optimistic.”
Want to help North America’s birds weather the storm? Check out these recommendations from the National Audubon Society.
(Top photo by Hans van Reenen via Flickr Creative Commons)
Before Two Degrees
The Before Two Degrees is a series by environmental advocate Savannah Miller and GWC associate director of communications Lindsay Renick Mayer that examines the inextricable link between climate change and wildlife extinction through the stories of those most at risk. Read the series introduction, first installment about how climate change is exacerbating threats to amphibians in the Neotropics and second installment about climate change’s effects on pollinators.