POLITICS
09/09/2014 02:19 EDT | Updated 11/09/2014 05:59 EST

Climate change to wipe out, move habitat for 100s of birds species: Audubon

The flip side of a one-dollar coin may be the only place most Canadians will be able to see a loon by the end of the century, suggests new research from the Audubon Society.

The beloved bird with its haunting ululations is one of 314 species —almost half of North America's birds — whose habitat is threatened by climate change, says a report by the environmental organization.

"We were all a little bit surprised with just how many species were going to lose more than half their current climate space in such a short space of time," Gary Langham, the project's lead investigator, said Tuesday.

The society used 30 years of climate data and tens of thousands of observations from both citizens and scientists to conclude that 126 species could lose more than half their current range by 2050 — with no chance of moving elsewhere. Another 188 species could lose the same amount of habitat by 2080, but could be able to make up for part of that by moving north.

By then, the common loon — familiar throughout Canada's cottage and camping country — would be largely forced into the Northwest Territories and the northern thirds of Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario to breed. About 25 per cent of its non-breeding range and 44 per cent of its breeding range would remain, the report says.

The same fate is likely to befall the white-throated sparrow. Its call of "Oh, sweet Canada Canada Canada" could eventually be heard over only 27 per cent of its original breeding range, the rest shifting far to the north of its current home, the report suggests.

The problem for birds is that habitats can't keep up with the speed of climate change.

Langham points to the bobolink, a grassland bird of the U.S. Midwest. By 2080, that bird's favoured climate will probably have moved north to the middle of Canada's boreal forest.

"It either has to figure out a way to make a living in a very different climate space or it has to figure out a way to make a living in the boreal forest, which won't move as fast as the birds do," Langham said.

"Birds have wings. Trees don't."

Langham said he hopes the society's conclusions will encourage people to do what they can to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. He also points out that the research shows where bird habitat is likeliest to remain stable, giving governments a chance to ensure those places remain hospitable.

"There are certain places that don't change very much for the bird's climate space. We can now have conversations about, OK, this area's going to stay stable. Is it protected? Are we managing it to help the bird that's going to depend on it?"

One of those places is likely to be Canada's boreal forest, said Jeff Wells, an ornithologist at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.

"It's so important that we have big chunks of intact habitat," Wells said.

"That's the only way we can have local populations that can adapt. You need lots of them and lots of chances for some of them to do well and others to disappear.

"The boreal is still a place where that is clearly possible."

Birds matter, said Langham.

"Birds rely on the same things that people do.

"We all need the same clean air and clean water. It defies reason to think half the birds could be disrupted in this way and that all the other things in nature won't be similarly impacted."