Where Have All The Birds Gone

Climate change is creating a peculiar problem in the Arctic tundra. A warmer earth means a shrubbier Arctic. But too many shrubs, which are too tall, are chasing away the birds to seek other habitats.
Multiple studies have already shown tundra areas are getting more shrubs. Climate warming is having effects in the form of longer growing seasons and thawing permafrost, said a study conducted recently by the US Geological Survey (USGS). Across Alaska, shrubs are encroaching into places that are previously did not have any, or at least did not have tall shrubs.
The researchers, over three summers, studied 17 bird species on the Seward Peninsula in western Alaska. The 17 birds – ranged in size from songbirds, such as the bluethroat that flies in from Eurasia, to wading birds, such as whimbrel and bristle-thighed curlews that fly in from other parts of North America – reach tundra mainly to breed. They time the hatching of their eggs to the height of the insect season.
According to researchers, the shrub density is not expected to harm species, but as shrubs grow taller, birds will likely to find the habitat unsuitable. USGS research wildlife biologist and lead author of the study Sarah Thompson said: “Height came out to be the most indicative of bird habitat selection. All across Alaska, you see this kind of shrub encroachment into places that previously didn’t have shrubs or didn’t have tall or many shrubs. We can look at all these different kinds of habitats that might exist in different amounts in the future and see where birds are, and then we can project forward.”
George Divoky, Director of the non-profit Friends of Cooper Island, has studied Arctic seabirds for more than 40 years off the coast of northern Alaska. He stressed: “They should have been going out ever since, certainly, the 1990s when climate change got to be an issue, and doing plots and actually measuring the changes in these birds, rather than going out now, and saying, ‘Oh, by the way in the future, these things are going to happen’.”
Interestingly, the research did not attempt to explain why tall shrubs made the tundra less appealing to birds, as it could be because of factors, such as effects on nesting or insects. The study was aimed at assessing how birds exist as habitat changes with future climate warming.



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