09/10/2014 04:04 EDT | Updated 11/10/2014 05:59 EST

Climate change threatens birds, pushes them north

The laugh of the loon across southern Canadian lakes may soon be replaced by the calls of unfamiliar birds such as white-faced ibises and Mississippi kites, because of climate change.

A new Birds and Climate Report from the New York-based conservation group National Audubon Society shows that climate change is pushing North American birds north — so far north that hundreds of species will lose more than half their current range by 2080.

"Climate change is displacing hundreds of bird species, many of which are headed deeper into the heart of Canada," said the group's chief scientist Gary Lagham in a statement tied to the release of the report this week.

"This new information shows that we have to look to the larger and still-intact landscapes of Canada's North to ensure these birds have somewhere safe to go."

The report looked at three decades of data from the Audubon Christmas Bird Count and the North American Breeding Bird survey, collected across North America by ordinary birders at the same time every year as part of long-running citizen science project.

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From that, the researchers figured out the geographic range of 588 species and therefore the climate needed for each to survive. The geographic area with a suitable climate for each species was defined as its "climatic range." The scientists then used climate models to figure out how the range of that climate will change by 2020, 2050 and 2080.

The results showed that 314 species will lose more than 50 per cent of their climatic range by 2080. Among those, 126 will lose more than 50 per cent of their climatic range by 2050 if global warming continues at its current pace.

What remains of their range will be largely pushed north.

"There'll be a lot of, basically, climate refugees in terms of birds," said Ted Cheskey, senior manager of bird conservation programs at Nature Canada, a non-profit group that collaborates with Audubon but was not directly involved in the study.

Species previously unknown in Canada are already increasingly spotted in Canada, he said, including the black vulture in Ontario, the Mississippi kite in Manitoba, and the white-face ibis, which has started to nest in southern Saskatchewan.

Other species, such as common loons, are moving farther north.

"If we don't have habitat to accommodate them," Cheskey said, "then that probably will result in the demise of a lot of species."

Some bird species are already showing steep declines — populations of the Canada warbler, rusty blackbird and olive-sided flycatcher have already declined by more than half, Audubon noted in a news release. A 2012 study found a 12 per cent drop in Canadian bird populations since 1970.

Cheskey said in some cases, that's because as suitable climates shift north, suitable vegetation, food and other parts of the habitat may not shift with them, and some birds may be unable to adapt — birds adapted to deciduous forests or grasslands won't be able to live in a boreal forest dominated by conifers, for example.

'We haven't conserved enough good habitat'

"That's really what the problem is. We haven't conserved enough good habitat," he said, adding that many suitable habitats have been overtaken by row crops and urban sprawl.

To make matters worse, there is evidence that in some cases, climate change is causing insects to come out at a different time than the time birds need those insects to feed their young, Cheskey said. That puts insect-eating birds such as chimney swifts and purple martins at risk.

In some cases, birds are already adapted to the far north, such as the ivory gull, Cheskey added. They may have nowhere left to go.

Conservationists, including Audubon, the Boreal Songbird Initiative and Nature Canada agree that in order to give the birds a chance in the face of climate change pressures, Canada needs to protect large, intact, areas containing a variety of suitable bird habitats across the country.

That will be a challenge. A report last week found that Canada leads the world in the degradation of large, pristine intact forests.

Cheskey said his group has catalogued 600 "important bird areas" across the country, but only a third are currently protected.

He says all levels of government must step up to create a nationwide network of protected areas, but ordinary citizens are ultimately responsible.

"Ultimately it's Canadians that have to wise up to these sorts of things and force our governments to act. They act on our behalf," he said. "I hope that this is an issue in the next election. I hope that Canadians make this an issue."

He added that humans also need to deal more effectively with climate change and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.