Climate change a threat to migratory birds, wildlife group says

McClatchy Washington BureauJune 18, 2013 

— Climate change is altering and destroying important habitats that America’s migratory birds depend on, the National Wildlife Federation said Tuesday in a report.

The environmental organization warns that a warming climate might lead to declines and even extinctions in some bird populations, and it calls on Congress and the president to curb carbon pollution and adopt what it calls “climate-smart conservation strategies.”

“We need urgent action at the local, state and federal levels to cut carbon pollution and confront the changes we’re already seeing,” said Larry Schweiger, the president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation.

Migratory birds face unique challenges because they require different places to live each season in order to raise their young, migrate and overwinter. At least 350 species in North America fly to South or Central America every fall and return in the spring.

In many coastal wetlands and beach habitats, which are home to birds such as king rails and piping plovers, the rise in sea level has changed where the birds can go.

They include such celebrated migrants as the red knot, a shorebird that has one of the longest-distance migrations known in the animal kingdom. Each year, the ruddy-breasted birds fly to the Canadian Arctic from their winter home in Tierra del Fuego at the tip of South America.

The red knots stop briefly in Delaware Bay in the spring to feast on horseshoe crab eggs. When they’ve doubled their weight, they resume their flight to the Arctic to breed. There’s some concern that rising sea levels could change their habitat in the bay, and the birds also are seeing major changes in the polar extremes of their range.

There are signs that climate change is “throwing off that critical timing between red knot arrival and horseshoe crab egg-laying,” said Doug Inkley, the National Wildlife Federation’s senior scientist.

“That’s what we’re worried about here,” he said. “Break just one link of the chain, and the entire species is in grave danger."

The report also warns that changing rain patterns linked to global warming threaten the Midwest’s prairie pothole region, known as "America’s duck factory." Ducks such as mallards and pintails face disappearing breeding habitat, the report said.

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