Report: Climate Change Threatens Migratory Birds with Shifting Skies

Urgent Action Needed to Protect Birds and their Habitats

06-18-2013 // Miles Grant

Climate change is altering and destroying important habitats that America’s migratory birds depend on and urgent action is needed to change that dangerous flight path, according to a new report released today by the National Wildlife Federation. Shifting Skies: Migratory Birds in a Warming World details how a warming climate could lead to a decline in some bird populations and even some extinctions if action is not taken to curb carbon pollution and adopt climate-smart conservation strategies.

Migratory Bird Report cover

"From waterfowl to songbirds to shorebirds, the climate crisis is the most serious threat this century facing America’s migratory birds," said Larry Schweiger, president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation. "We need urgent action at the local, state and federal levels to cut carbon pollution and confront the changes we’re already seeing."

Shifting Skies explains that migratory birds face unique challenges because each season they require different places to live, often thousands of miles apart, to raise their young, migrate and overwinter. At least 350 species in North America fly to South or Central America every fall and return in the spring. The report describes how climate change is adversely affecting bird behavior and includes specific examples in many regions of the U.S.:

  • Birds’ ranges are shifting and in some cases, contracting. 177 of 305 species tracked have shifted their centers of abundance during the winter northward by 35 miles on average in the past four decades.
  • Coastal wetlands and beach habitats, home to birds like king rails and piping plovers, are disappearing, inundated by sea level rise.
  • Global warming is exacerbating pests and disease, such as mountain pine beetle epidemics that have devastated many western forests.
  • Changing precipitation patterns threaten the Midwest’s prairie pothole region, known as "America’s duck factory." Many ducks such as mallards and pintails face disappearing breeding habitat.

"A key example of a bird vulnerable to climate change is the red knot, a common shorebird on the Atlantic and Pacific Coasts," said Doug Inkley, the National Wildlife Federation’s senior scientist. "Some migrate as far as 9,300 miles from their Arctic breeding grounds to the southernmost tip of South America where they overwinter. But in Delaware Bay, where virtually the entire Atlantic red knot population goes to fatten up on horseshoe crab eggs for the energy they need to finish their arduous journey back to their Arctic breeding habitats, there are signs climate change is throwing off that critical timing between red knot arrival and horseshoe crab egg laying. That’s what we’re worried about here. Break just one link of the chain and the entire species is in grave danger."

The National Wildlife Federation report recommends concrete steps to curb climate change and its impacts on migratory birds, such as sea level rise, wildfires, drought and more extreme weather events.

  • Reduce carbon pollution under the Clean Air Act. While the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to regulate industrial carbon pollution has been approved by the Supreme Court and repeatedly upheld by Congress, the Obama administration has not yet set carbon pollution limits. It’s time to act.
  • Invest in clean energy and reduce dependence on dirty fuels. Properly-sited wind, solar, geothermal and sustainable bioenergy will reduce our consumption of carbon-polluting fuels like coal, oil, tar sands and natural gas, which are driving climate change.
  • Protect and restore natural carbon sinks. Restoring the ability of farms, forests and other natural lands to absorb and store carbon provides increased benefits to birds and other wildlife by providing important habitat, as well as helping to mitigate climate change.
  • Use climate-smart conservation strategies to protect sensitive habitats and restore degraded areas. Land and water protection efforts increasingly will need to take future climate projections into account to ensure long-term value to birds and other wildlife. Degraded landscapes need to be restored, and citizens can take action to provide important habitat through backyard and schoolyard habitat programs.

"From backyard wildlife watchers to hunters in their duck blinds, unless we take action now, Americans across the country are going to be asking ‘what happened to all the birds,'" said Dr. Alan Wentz, retired chief conservation officer of Ducks Unlimited and current board member of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “We know the steps we need to take to safeguard not just birds but all wildlife, our communities, and current and future generations of Americans from climate change. Now it’s time for action."

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), 2012 was America’s hottest year on record. Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels hit 400 parts per million in May, a concentration not seen on Earth for 3 million years.

"Targeted investments in climate-smart conservation strategies can deliver huge returns for America’s communities and wildlife," said Lynn Scarlett, former Deputy Secretary and Chief Operating Officer of the Interior Department from 2005 to 2009. "We’ll need to work together to solve these challenges, not just across local, state, and federal boundaries, but across party lines."

In January, the National Wildlife Federation issued a report on how the climate crisis is impacting America’s wildlife. Read Wildlife in a Warming World at


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