Conserving Birds in a Changing Climate

By Cynthia Ellis

WVHC, we think, was justifiably proud of the line-up of presenters arranged for our virtual Fall Review in 2021.  That pride extends to offering some of that information again, here in The Highlands Voice, as a refresher, or for any who may have not happened to have seen the original event. 

Katie Fallon shared with us about “Conserving Birds in a Changing Climate.”  Ms. Fallon has taught writing at Virginia Tech and WVU and is the author of “Cerulean Blues” and “Vulture: The Private Life of an Unloved Bird,” as well as several books for children.  Katie is one of the founders of the Avian Conservation Center of Appalachia in Morgantown and is actively involved in environmental education.  A lifelong resident of Appalachia, Katie’s great-great grandfather, great-grandfather, and grandfather were coal miners in West Virginia and Pennsylvania. She lives in Cheat Lake, WV, with her family.

To introduce the need for conservation of birds, Katie reminded us that a great many birds are experiencing population decline: 

  • According to a 2019 study by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and collaborators, North America has lost 3 billion birds since 1970 
  • Groups of birds experiencing losses include grassland birds, migratory birds, boreal forest birds, eastern forest birds, aerial insectivores, and shorebirds 
  • Groups of birds that had been in decline before 1970 but have rebounded include raptors, waterfowl, and woodpeckers

Through a regional aside, she pointed out there are challenges in collecting such data.  She noted statistics, published in October 2021 by the American Birding Association, that were an effort to determine the numbers of birders submitting records to Cornell.  The data changed daily with each bird list submission, but some remote locations in West Virginia and Kentucky, usually near coal mining areas, could each be labeled as the “least birded county” in the United States.  Katie and other birders here hope to encourage our friends to branch out in their field work and help make the assessments more accurate.  

Why the declines?  Some suggestions are:

  • Habitat loss 
  • Habitat degradation 
  • Other anthropogenic threats (free-roaming cats, windows, vehicles) 
  • Losses due to climate change and pesticide use (direct and indirect) which are more difficult to estimate

Regarding climate change, according to a 2019 report by National Audubon, 389 North American bird species are vulnerable to extinction from climate change; vulnerable groups include Arctic birds, boreal forest birds, western and eastern forest birds, and waterbirds.  How does climate change affect avian populations?

  • There may be habitat loss or habitat degradation 
  • Ranges could shift – in North America, ranges shift north latitudinally and to higher elevations 
  • Changes in food availability 
  • Increase in drought / fires 
  • Increase in mosquito-borne diseases 
  • Changes could be too fast for birds to adapt

Katie suggested three personal and practical things that we can all do to help.

We can provide beneficial and safe habitats.  We can do this through such changes as minimizing synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, minimizing the use of weed whackers and leaf blowers, and by minimizing or eliminating lawns.  We can plant native species, provide places to nest, and protect from window hazards and from non-native predators.

Secondly, we can patronize local farms and organic farms.  These can   decrease “food miles” and mean less fuel to ship.  They can provide shorter time from farm to table and can protect water and soil, and sequester carbon. And these farms can maintain green space in a community and supply habitat for birds.

When researching for the book Cerulean Blues, Ms. Fallon studied bird issues in South America. She visited and became familiar with Columbian coffee farms that specialize in “shade grown coffee.”  Her first-hand experience has made her knowledgeable and passionate about the benefits of this beverage choice when thinking of one small thing to help birds.  

The traditional way to grow coffee was to plant the shrubs in the forest, in the shade of the canopy, but demand for coffee increased around the 1970s and so tropical forests were cut to grow coffee more quickly in the full sun. Full-sun coffee creates a monoculture dependent on fertilizers and pesticides.  Shade-grown coffee may be more expensive for the consumer than coffee grown in the full sun. But…the technique protects or restores tropical forests and promotes species diversity (plants, birds, mammals, amphibians, and invertebrates).  It is beneficial to pollinators and to other crops on the same plots, notably fruit trees.  

Shade-grown coffee doesn’t require the number of fertilizers and pesticides that full-sun coffee does and it protects soil; improving health and preventing erosion. Shade-grown coffee may help mitigate climate change through carbon sequestration, temperature control, and water retention.  Here’s more details, and a purchasing source~  Coffee Produced in Bird-Friendly Habitats | Audubon

So, enjoy that steaming cup of coffee, and, oh yes, Katie Fallon left us with one more tip that could make a difference…

Take a kid birding! 

We close with gratitude to Katie Fallon for providing a few more resource notes, and for participating in our Fall Review.