The National Audubon Society was recently awarded Popular Mechanics’ Breakthrough Award for its comprehensive report linking climate change to a drastic reduction in future bird populations. Biologists and birders in New Mexico are already seeing major changes.
When Raymond Vanbuskirk was a teenager a decade ago, he heard about the mythical Rosy-Finch and how flocks would swarm the Sandia Crest east of Albuquerque. So on a cold winter morning, he huddled in freezing temperatures on the mountain and waited.
“And then all of the sudden WHOOOOSHH! There’s this huge group of birds, and they’re twisting and turning like a school of fish in the sky,” Raymond said. “And then as soon as they were there, they were gone.”
The Rosy-Finch breeds in the alpine tundra as far north as the Arctic Circle in the summertime. In the winter, they fly south to hang out on snowy mountaintops above the tree line. But as winters get warmer the Rosy-Finch is being forced to head further north. Raymond said he used to consistently count about 1,000 Rosy-Finches here every winter.
“But now, the past two winters, we’ve been on a regular basis seeing somewhere between 30 to 150 birds,” Raymond said. “The Sandia Crest doesn’t seem to be able to support them like it used to.”
This year the National Audubon Society published 40 years' worth of data they had mined through on hundreds of bird species. Scientists then modeled that information with global temperatures, humidity levels and precipitation. They found that more than half of the common bird species they studied, including the Rosy-Finch, are under threat of extinction by the end of this century.
Fifty of those species are at least part-time residents in New Mexico. We’re talking about the Black-Billed Magpie, the Swanson’s Hawk and the Yellow Headed Black Bird, to name a few.
“Can you hear that soft chimp note?" Raymond asked. "That’s the Wilson’s Warbler.”
Many mornings of the year Raymond helps gather bird data at the Rio Grande Nature Center.
“Woohoho, there we go! There’s clearly been a large push of Wilson’s Warbler migration last night,” Raymond exclaimed. “Sometimes they come in waves.”
He works with wildlife biologist Steven Cox, who said a decade ago, they would capture and release close to 80 birds a day on average. But now there are half as many birds coming through.
“There’s certainly evidence that migration timing is changing as well,” Steven said. “Birds aren’t moving as soon, or they’re moving sooner, depending on which way they’re going.”
There’s no single smoking gun to point to, Steven says. On top of climate change, there’s habitat destruction, whether it’s grasslands being converted to oil fields or the actual cutting down of forests.
“Or the total manipulation of a habitat type,” Steven said. “And if we’re out to try and fix it, what do we do?”
According to Steven, we should all be collecting data. That way when lawmakers want to create policy that addresses climate change, like carbon emission rules or conservation goals, Steven said, they have something to point to.
At the Nature Center, volunteers helped Steven and Raymond take measurements of every bird they catch, and then a tiny aluminum band is put around each bird’s tarsus, or ankle, for tracking a bird’s life-cycle and movements.
“Some of our birds we’ve banded at the Rio Grande Nature Center have shown up in West Virginia, Mexico—even as far away as Alaska,” Raymond said.
He hopes the data can be used to influence policy.
“Climate change, this global warming, it isn’t a political issue. It isn’t a religious issue. It’s a bird issue,” Raymond said. “We need to start working on saving the bird species and supporting the bird species that we have now, and supporting policies at all of these different levels of government.”
Before the banded birds are released, Raymond gives every one of them a kiss as a testament to his hope that as a civilization, we do some serious course correction.
Raymond’s hope might not be completely fantastical. Lawmakers in D.C. are considering 31 bills addressing climate change and ecology. Meanwhile, birders around the world are gathering even more of that precious data over the next few weeks during the annual Christmas Bird Count.