Birds Are Losing the Climate Change Battle

Study reveals cold, hard reality for our feathered friends

By Jessica Greene
|  Friday, Mar 12, 2010  |  Updated 1:46 PM PDT
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Birds Are Losing the Climate Change Battle

Brian Bostrom

A pelican in Mission Bay San Diego

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A new report is confirming the fears many conservationists and wildlife experts have been warning about for years: Climate change is seriously harming our nation's bird population. The State of the Birds report specifically emphasizes the impact of climate change on coastal and ocean birds.

The report, conducted by the Interior Department, says global climate change significantly threatens U.S. migratory birds already stressed by habitat loss and environmental pollution. Oceanic birds are at particular risk from a rapidly changing marine ecosystem and rising sea levels.

Bird populations are also suffering from deeper and longer droughts, more intense flooding, hotter fire seasons and other weather phenomena associated with climate change.

Jay Holcomb, of the International Bird Rescue Research Center, sees a bright side to the State of the Birds report.

"Groups like ours are on the front lines," Holcomb says. They have witnessed major, unusual changes in bird populations over the past couple years and have been alerting the Coast Guard and other agencies. He sees the report as a valuable step in the right direction, and hopes the government agencies will move toward funding rescue and rehabilitation efforts for healthy birds that just can't adapt to climate change fast enough to survive.

Rebecca Dmytryk, of WildRescue, based in Moss Landing, is all to familiar with the bird despair.

"We having been warning of things like this for decades," Dmytryk said via email, "and it is not until now, in the severity of it all, that the message is being heard."

Last October, Dmytryk and her colleagues went to Oregon to help the Coast Guard retrieve nearly 500 marine  birds that were coated in a soap-like substance blamed on underwater algae that normally blooms in warm, nutrient-rich waters. But, it bloomed off-season -- in the winter, while the ocean was churning Dmytryk said. The birds lost their waterproofing, couldn't find food and died. Despite their hard work to rescue and rehabilitate the creatures, 10,000 marine birds died.

Dmytryk takes the climate change issue a step further, pointing out the ripple effect it's having on the entire natural world. She blames the education system, in part, because of the lack of focus over time on life sciences and the environment. The result over decades of the shifting focus has trickled down to volunteerism and rescue efforts.

"Sadly, my experiences have led me to believe that most human beings don't know what a surf scoter is, what it looks like, what it smells like, how ice blue are their eyes, and how they 'faint' when handled." Dmytryk said. "They don't know and they don't care."

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on Friday echoed Dmytryk's concerns and stressed the importance of getting the climate change message out to the public.

"We are no longer constrained by talking about some possible future. Climate change is happening now and it's happening in people's back yards," NOAA director Jane Lubchenco told reporters at a briefing Friday. "Scientists have seriously underestimated the importance of explaining what we know about climate in a way people can understand."

For Dmytryk and her colleagues around the globe, getting the message out is a daily battle. If we don't make drastic changes now, she sees a bleak future for all species.

"Unless we take action now to reverse our species'adverse impacts on Earth's life support systems, our future is not pretty." Dmytryk said. "Our future is without tigers, our future is without the cheetah, it is without the albatross, or pelicans, or blue whales. But there will be plenty of human beings."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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