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Ducks in the southern US are shifting northwards due to climate crisis

Shifts in migration patterns over 50 years have repercussions for both wildlife and people

Oliver O'Connell
New York
Tuesday 30 March 2021 20:26 BST
Related: Great Lakes ice cover thinning and melting faster

A study of 50 years of data on bird populations has determined that ducks that spend winter in southern states have been shifting northwards over the decades, due to the climate crisis.

According to research by the National Audubon Society and Clemson University’s James C Kennedy Waterfowl and Wetlands Conservation Centre 16 common duck species have altered their migratory patterns in that time.

The study, published in the Journal of Wildlife Management, is based on data collected during Audubon’s annual Christmas Bird Count (CBC) between 1969 and 2019.

The CBC includes both amateur birders and scientists reporting on local bird populations each December and January.

“We’ve suspected that warming temperatures are changing the types of waterfowl that we’re seeing in different regions, and these data confirm that,” said Dr Tim Meehan, quantitative ecologist at the National Audubon Society and the lead author of the publication.

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“The weather has stopped becoming severe enough in the winter to prompt the birds to fly south. They’re staying farther north, and they’re telling us that something fundamental has changed in their environment.”

Data shows that while populations have not changed overall, there are noticeable differences in where the birds gather, which correspond to warming temperatures.

The American Black Duck, for instance, showed a marked increase in numbers in traditionally colder northern locations and a decline in traditionally warmer regions.

The findings of the study could have repercussions for both ducks and people.

Concern for the ducks centres around the availability of food at more northern latitudes and whether there is enough to support these populations.

For people, concern focuses on the impact on local economies in the south reliant on birders and hunters visiting during colder months. Such pastimes generate billions of dollars in economic activity each year.

The results of the study also highlight the importance of the role of local communities in science – the Christmas Bird count has been running since 1900 and informs Audobon’s science for the rest of the year.

“It’s a testament to the power that anyone can make a real difference in scientific observation,” said Dr. Brooke Bateman, director of climate science at the National Audubon Society.

“People may not have known what climate change was in 1969 when they went out on Christmas Day to record the birds they saw, but their reports are helping us unravel one of the most pressing global issues of the 21st Century.”

A 2019 climate science report conducted by Audubon, Survival By Degrees found that increasing global temperatures at current rates will put two-thirds of North American bird species at risk of extinction. 

“Time and again science is showing that there are consequences to ignoring climate change,” said David Yarnold, CEO of the National Audubon Society. “Sometimes it’s the sentimental loss of no longer seeing the birds you know in your own backyard, sometimes it’s harm to an industry like tourism or outdoor recreation, and sometimes it’s a larger cause for concern about the places that both ducks and people need to survive.”

He adds: “Birds are telling us that the changes are already here. The question is are we prepared to react and resolve.”

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