Study: How climate change will affect birds in national parks

Acadia National Park
Acadia National Park in Maine. Photo by Zack Frank/Shutterstock

Subscribe today to BirdWatching magazine for tips, birding hot spots and much more brought right to you!

American national parks offer strong protection for birds from many invasive and ecological threats, but little is known about the impact of climate change on bird populations living in the parks. A new study published in the open-access journal PLoS ONE, however, finds that parks could become even more important for bird conservation in the face of climate change.

Researchers led by Joanna Wu of the National Audubon Society’s Science Division paired species distribution models from the North American Breeding Bird Survey (summer) and Audubon Christmas Bird Count (winter) observations to climate data from the early 2000s and projected to 2041-2070. The researchers analyzed climate suitability projections over time for 513 species across 274 national parks under a high- and low-greenhouse-gas-emission scenario. They then classified climate suitability for birds as improving, worsening, stable, potential colonization, and potential extirpation.

The researchers found that potential colonization by birds in national parks exceeds potential extirpation in more than 60 percent of parks, and if projected extirpations and colonizations were realized, the average park would have 29 percent more species in winter and 6 percent more species in summer. The authors suggest that their findings reinforce the importance of the parks to the conservation of birds in the face of climate change and the value of monitoring species distribution to better inform conservation and management strategies.

Researchers classified projected bird-population trends at 274 national parks in the lower 48 states and Alaska. Each circle represents one park. Credit: Wu JX, et al., 2018, PLoS ONE 13(3)
Researchers classified projected bird-population trends at 274 national parks in the lower 48 states and Alaska. Each circle represents one park. Credit: Wu JX, et al., 2018, PLoS ONE 13(3)

Wu’s paper includes this example: At Golden Gate National Recreation Area in California, the climate is expected to improve for Great Egret, remain stable for Nuttall’s Woodpecker, and worsen for Wilson’s Warbler. By the 2050s, the climate may worsen so much for American Robin that the species could be extirpated from the park. And although Blue Grosbeak is not currently found in the park, the climate is projected to become suitable for the species, potentially resulting in local colonization.

“Over the next few decades, the majority of birds currently found across the National Park System are expected to experience changes in climate conditions, which on average may lead to turnover of nearly a quarter of the bird community per park,” says Gregor Schuurman, a co-author of the study. “Despite these changes, parks will become increasingly important as refuges for birds in the future.”

See Audubon’s detailed summary of the research

Kenn Kaufman: Climate change could cause shifts in bird ranges that seem unbelievable today

Read the study

Wu JX, Wilsey CB, Taylor L, Schuurman GW (2018). Projected avifaunal responses to climate change across the U.S. National Park System. PLoS ONE 13(3): e0190557. PDF

A version of this article will appear in the May/June 2018 issue of BirdWatching magazine. Subscribe

Read about birding in these national parks:

Cuyahoga Valley
Grand Canyon
Point Reyes National Seashore


Read our newsletter!

Sign up for our free e-newsletter to receive news, photos of birds, attracting and ID tips, and more delivered to your inbox every other week. Sign up now

See the contents of our current issue

How to subscribe to BirdWatching