Why We’re Facing a Major Bird Extinction and What We Can Do to Prevent it

Birds are awesome! Take the sanderling: every year this 3-ounce bird starts from California, flies east across the top of North America, down the Atlantic coast in the fall to wintering grounds in Chile and Peru, and then back north to its arctic breeding grounds. Finally it returns to California. That’s an exhausting schedule!

Although most birds go no higher than 500 feet in their daily flights, many migrating birds go up to 10 times higher, and then keep climbing to reach 20,000 feet. Wow!

As remarkable as these feats are, we may not be seeing them for too much longer.

The National Audubon Society, the World Wildlife Fund and the National Wildlife Federation all agree that climate change is threatening bird species.

A report compiled for the World Wildlife Fund sees a clear trend towards a major bird extinction from climate change. The study reviews more than 200 scientific articles that reveal how birds suffer from the effects of global warming around the world. Scientists found declines of up to 90 percent in some bird populations, as well as total and unprecedented reproductive failure in others.

They warn that bird extinction rates could be as high as 38 percent in Europe, and 72 percent in northeastern Australia, if global warming exceeds 2ºC above pre-industrial levels (currently it is 0.8ºC above).

What exactly is going on?

Birds Moving Further North as the Climate Changes

A growing body of research has been tracking the gradual but steady impact of climate change on birds. Using 40 years of citizen-science Christmas Bird Count data, the National Audubon Society has documented that more than half of the birds that winter in North America have shifted their ranges northward over the last 40 years in an effort to adapt to the changing climate.

Northward movement was detected among species of every type. These shifts – averaging 37 miles, with some more than 200 miles – are closely correlated to long-term winter temperature increases. As the world grows warmer, birds move north, seeking colder climes.

Catastrophic Effect on Birds

The pressing question is: can migratory birds survive these rapidly changing conditions? Increasingly, experts agree that the answer is “no.”

Here’s how Brigid McCormack, executive director of Audubon California, puts it:

In the face of climate change, birds will not pile up on the beach. They will not fall out of the sky. They will not shout out their demise.

No, instead of those dramatic deaths, some birds – the lucky ones – will go somewhere else. Others will simply not make nests. Or they will have three eggs instead of seven. Or they will not successfully raise their young.

Around Audubon offices, we’ve grown tired of using the metaphor of the canary in the coalmine. But that’s the thing with some clichés – some are just too apt to avoid. Just as canaries dropping dead in their cages used to warn miners of dangerous gases underground, so too will birds warn us of the greatest environmental challenge of this century.

While certainly some of those warnings, like the canaries’, will come in form of dead birds, it is more likely that these warnings will come in a much quieter but no less haunting manner – through their absence.

Steps to Take Now

Here are a few of the actions that need to happen now, so that we are not left asking, “What happened to all the birds?”

  • 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.
  • 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.

Take Action

Recently the House Appropriations Committee voted to cut the Environmental Protection Agency’s budget by $717 million. This is just one of many ways they are undermining President Obama’s historic efforts to reverse the effects of climate change. Please sign our petition affirming that you stand with President Obama and the EPA as they strive to make climate change a priority.

Photo Credit: Thinkstock


Jim Ven
Jim Venabout a year ago

thanks for the article.

Melania Padilla
Melania Padilla2 years ago

Petition signed by the way

Melania Padilla
Melania Padilla2 years ago

Birds as other animals are endangered because of us ;(

Simon Tucker
Simon Tucker2 years ago

Meme M. - clearly deranged
Ruhee B.: House Sparrows do not live in hedgerows, they are hole nesters. The problems they face are to do with house renovation removing nest holes, and gardens being concreted over, reducing available food.

Nils Anders Lunde
PlsNoMessage se2 years ago


Angev GERIDONI2 years ago

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Thank you for sharing

Angev GERIDONI2 years ago

Thank you to all who love the animals and the planet, and who already signed the petition to protect horses from Pétropolis, if no, please help give an happy end to the sad story of those enslaved animals, and share these petitions : ♞ Care 2 - and - ♞ PeticaoPublica.com


Shalvah Landy
Past Member 2 years ago

Jeanni B. here now: "NOT climate change - more like Fukushima radiation killing off all the fish these birds eat. Stop with the climate change biz already!!"
I see you have offset a pound of carbon, what exactly do you think you did by that?

Shalvah Landy
Past Member 2 years ago

"...it is more likely that these warnings will come in a much quieter but no less haunting manner – through their absence."
This is so important because most people refuse to believe something they can't see for themselves, and then it's to late to do anything about the situation!

Charmaine C.
Charmaine C.2 years ago

Interesting and scary article. Thank you.

Oh dear Jeanni B. No climate change you say??