Conservation & Science

Climate change ruffles birds’ feathers

From Nov. 30-Dec. 11, leaders from more than 190 nations will gather in Paris for the 2015 United Nations Conference on Climate Change, or COP21. The conference aims to achieve a binding international agreement to slow the pace of climate change. If we as a global community take bold and meaningful action in Paris, we can change course and leave our heirs a better world. In advance of COP21, Monterey Bay Aquarium is working to raise public awareness about the serious ways our carbon emissions affect ocean health, including ocean acidification, warming sea waters and other impacts on marine life. Today’s post focuses, in words and images, on how climate change could affect some of the coastal Californian shorebirds we exhibit in our Aviary.

In 1962, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring warned the widespread use of synthetic pesticides could lead to a bleak future for birds. But more than 50 years later, we still hear birdsong — because people rallied to act. Carson’s book inspired a successful campaign to ban one of the most toxic pesticides, DDT, in the United States.

Audubon’s Birds and Climate Change report, released in fall 2014, is a bit like Silent Spring, warning that more than half of North American bird species could be in trouble by 2080. But in this report, it’s not pesticides threatening to turn down the birdsong. It’s carbon emissions.

COP21 is our chance to change the ending.

A climate eviction notice

The Audubon report predicts climate change could shrink or shift the ranges of hundreds of U.S. bird species. Some might survive by adapting to new breeding and wintering areas. Others have nowhere else to go.

The impacts of climate change could push 314 North American bird species – more than half of those Audubon studied – out of more than 50 percent of their current ranges, according to the report. Slowing the pace of climate change would give them more time to adapt.

The study is conservative, with results showing the best-case scenarios. It predicts a troubling future for many North American birds, but it also helps identify the most important areas to protect now – for birds that will need them in the decades to come.

Here, according to the report, are the predicted impacts of climate change on five shorebird species you can see in our Aviary.

Black oystercatcher, Haematopus bachmani

Volunteers who monitor black oystercatchers along Monterey Bay’s rocky shoreline have come to recognize these birds by their orange, carrot-like beaks. Today, their range extends from Alaska’s Aleutian Islands to the Baja Peninsula, though they tend to stick to specific intertidal areas.

Black oystercatcher

Climate change, and particularly rising sea levels, could reduce their summer range by 31%, and shrink their winter range by 14%, in the next 65 years. It could also push them into closer quarters with their cousins, American oystercatchers. For now, the two species mostly brush feathers on the Pacific side of Baja; climate change could bring them together across a broader range.

Dunlin, Calidris alpina

These common shorebirds winter on both the east and west coasts of the United States.


Most of the time, their plumage is a dull, speckled grayish-brown. But during the fleeting breeding season, both male and female dunlins sport reddish accents on their caps and backs, along with large black belly patches, making them stand out among shorebirds their size.

Audubon’s climate model predicts dunlins will expand their winter range by 38% due to climate change, pushing them farther north into Canada by 2080. But summer could spell trouble. Dunlins breed in wet coastal grasslands along the shores of the Arctic Ocean; Audubon forecasts a 94% loss in that habitat by 2080. Since they already breed in the northernmost latitides, climate change could leave dunlins with nowhere to breed.

Snowy plover, Charadrius nivosus nivosus

Western snowy plovers camouflage so well in the sand, it can be hard to notice they’re there. But these tiny, federally threatened birds, which can be found along the shores of Monterey Bay, are very sensitive to human disturbance. The Aquarium’s aviculture team is a key part of a collaborative effort to rescue, treat and release injured Western snowy plovers and incubate abandoned eggs. Adult plovers in our Aviary act as surrogate parents to these chicks until they’re strong enough to be released.

Week-old Western snowy plover chick

Audubon’s climate model predicts snowy plovers—which breed on sun-baked salt flats and spend their winters on coastal mud flats—could lose 56% of their winter range by 2080. If extensive open spaces near the water become available to them, snowy plovers could expand inland and northward, potentially expanding their winter range by one-third.

Semipalmated plover, Charadrius semipalmatus

These tiny, black-masked birds are named after their partly webbed feet. In the winter, they can be found on some of Monterey Bay’s beaches and tidelands, munching on bugs, crustaceans and worms. In the summer they nest in the Arctic.

Semipalmated plover

Audubon predicts they could lose about a quarter of their summer range by 2080. Their winter range, including the shores of Florida, Texas and California, could expand by more than 40% as they begin colonizing lakes, reservoirs and river edges that are increasingly ice-free. But as they shift inland from the coasts, they could lose almost three-quarters of their existing winter range.


Short-billed dowitcher, Limnodromus griseus

Short-billed and long-billed dowitchers look so much alike, even seasoned birders can have trouble telling them apart. But they’re two different species, and they prefer separate habitats in the winter. The short-bills tend to head to coastal saltwater areas, the long-bills to inland freshwater habitats.

Short-billed dowitcher

Audubon predicts climate change will push short-billed dowitchers into an almost entirely new winter range, especially along the Gulf Coast. If they expand inland in the U.S. Southwest, they may find themselves sharing space with long-billed dowitchers, which already winter there.


These photographs of our Aviary birds were taken by National Geographic photographer Joel Sartore as part of his Photo Ark project.


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