Bobolinks are projected to become extinct in Illinois if climate change is not slowed. Photo: Sharon Dobben/Audubon Photography Awards

Earlier this month, the Chicago-based organization Audubon Great Lakes, the local branch of the National Audubon Society, gathered leaders from across the Chicago area for the release of the report “Survival by Degrees: 389 Species on the Brink.”

The report says that “birds are telling us it’s time to take action on climate,” and reveals that recent Audubon research shows that two-thirds (389 out of 604) of North American bird species are at risk of extinction from climate change.

The report, based on the study of 140 million bird records, relied on climate models used by more than 800 experts to map where birds can live in the future under a changing climate. Audubon also developed a tool that allows people across the U.S. to understand better the potential impact of climate change on local birds.

In Illinois, species that are most threatened by climate change and climate-related threats include the bobolink, red-headed woodpecker, field sparrow, brown thrasher and wood thrush.

The bobolink, a species that has declined in Illinois by 10% over the last 10 years, has actually shown stability or slight increases in the greater Chicago wilderness where significant investments in habit restoration have been made. In the report, however, bobolinks are projected to become extinct in Illinois if climate change is not slowed.

Nat Miller, acting executive director of Audubon Great Lakes, said that “birds have often been seen as the canary in the coal mine, signaling to us dangerous shifts in our environment. We’re now seeing them also as ambassadors that help us bring people together, across the political spectrum and differences of opinion, and that can help us slow climate change.”

Mr. Miller said that it is not just the birds that are indicating local shifts. “In Evanston, with its beautiful shoreline where residents spend so much of their time, people are acutely aware of the dramatic rise in lake levels and the shifts in the beaches,” said Mr. Miller. “Those are real signs of the changing climate and mean that it’s time to act now.”

Mr. Miller said that Evanston is known for its birders and the environmental advocacy of its residents. “Evanston is the kind of community that can take real, meaningful action, because of its history and systems it already has in place. It can be one of the leaders in Illinois and for the Great Lakes region, particularly with its unique position on the shore of Lake Michigan.”

John Bates, the curator of birds at Chicago’s Field Museum, conducts research on African and South American birds, keeps track of bird trends across North America, and is also an Evanstonian and local birder.

“The one thing I want to get across to people about the report is that these findings are based on models and on reasonable assumptions,” said Dr. Bates. “What we really don’t know is what aspects of bird life history will be most affected with respect to what is predicted by these models.”

Dr. Bates said the two-thirds extinction rate assumes not only specific degrees of warming, but also that the birds have no capacity to adapt to local conditions. “Across all birds there will be lots of things happening. There is this intriguing thing – lots of birds of prey and water birds have gone up in numbers. We need more science to know more precisely what might happen,” said Dr. Bates.

Dr. Bates said that, when he got to Chicago 26 years ago, the Cooper’s Hawk was on the endangered species list – and now it is the most common bird of prey in Chicago.

“Populations may have been knocked back as result of DDT [Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane] use. DDT, used in the 1960s, is an insecticide that became known for negative environmental impacts and is now banned in many countries. Many of these populations suddenly adapted very well to urban areas. That could be having access to prey and good nest sites.”

Dr. Bates said that, while the findings from the report are significant, what they really highlight is that there needs to be more research. “Are the primary factors, for instance, going to be that insect populations are going to impacted, making it difficult for birds to raise their young effectively?” asked Dr. Bates. “Changing climate will affect things that are different for different species. We really still don’t know much about those specifics.”

Dr. Bates, in citing some of the uncertainties, said it is also unclear whether cities may or may not be like climate buffers for some of these populations. “We don’t know, comparatively speaking, what’s going to happen to a park district forest relative to a north Evanston neighborhood,” said Dr. Bates. “Are the trees or insect populations going to be affected in the same way – and what does that mean for the birds?”

Asked about what he is aware of with shifts in local bird populations tied to climate change, Dr. Bates said that, based on Field Museum and other collections the Field Museum has studied records from five counties in the northeast corner of Illinois collected from 1890 to 1920, the Museum has calculated first egg laying dates and determined common points across individual birds of individual species. Dr. Bates said it is possible to do the same thing for modern data.

“Some species are nesting up to two weeks earlier than they were about 100 years ago,” said Dr. Bates. “That’s consistent with climate warming and things trying to respond to it. It’s not completely straightforward. Local responses are going to be dictated by a number of things.

“I love that Audubon put up models that are very detailed, with one interesting point being that they are still models. Again, it will be key to do science to understand where the models end up being accurate and not being accurate as time goes on,” said Dr. Bates. “To their credit you put the stuff out there. You need to do more monitoring and more science on that monitoring. You really want to – in the end – to know exactly what’s going on.”

Dr. Bates pointed out that there are ways that Evanstonians can participate as  citizen scientists.

There are, for example, online sites that tap into worldwide data bases where individuals can input observations about local birds.

“This helps us understand the trends as time goes on,” said Dr. Bates. “I turn in lists of birds that I see near my home and at Perkins Woods. I can immediately upload that information into a data base.”

Audubon Great Lakes has encouraged residents throughout the Great Lakes region to reduce energy use and ask elected officials to support energy-saving policies and the expansion of consumer-driven clean energy development; to advocate for natural solutions like increasing marshlands along coasts and rivers; and to ask elected leaders to be climate and conservation champions.

Ned Schaub is a feature story writer for the RoundTable. He has served as reporter, content developer and communications manager across his career in the field of nonprofit communications. Ned studied...