The Sounds of Silence: What the Birds Tell Us About Climate and Where We Live

Everybody has heard the old cliché, “It’s the canary in a coal mine.” But how about the new and improved version? Be prepared to start using “Like a Veery in hurricane season.” Ornithologist Christopher Heckscher published a report in Nature after studying Veery (Catharus fuscescens) breeding in Delaware for nearly two decades. He found that Veery breeding seasons ended earlier in years with more severe hurricane seasons. His conclusion? These plain thrushes with a haunting song that Rachel Carson loved may be even better than computers at predicting the severity of a hurricane season.

NASA

I grew up in the sunny, humid town of Davie, Florida where hurricanes rolled in regularly. I remember driving to Home Depot with my parents to stock up on heavy gallons of water, flashlight batteries, and generator fuel after our local news would announce that a hurricane was barreling our way. I remember the sun beating down on my back as I started the hours-long process of helping my dad screw the shutters onto our windows. I remember the silence the night before the storm.

My house backed up to a bustling street that fell quiet and empty as South Floridians barricaded themselves inside their homes. But, more than the absence of human noise, I noticed how quiet our backyard became. The lizards no longer skittered across our porch, the squirrels stopped squeaking, and the birds ceased their songs. In the dusk before the storm, there was tension in my backyard; the animals were bracing for a torrential downpour. They were warning us of what was to come.

From canaries signaling coal miners to carbon monoxide poisoning to Veeries alerting coastal residents to deadly hurricanes, birds act as humans’ early warning systems. It is no surprise then, that in this ever-changing world during the climate crisis they will continue to do so, especially about whether you can still inhabit your home.

Survival By Degrees. Audubon. Range of Mountain Bluebirds under a rise of 3.0 degrees Celsius. The range in red is lost, and the species vulnerability is categorized as high (Click to enlarge)

In 2019, The National Audubon Society published a report titled “Survival by Degrees: 389 Bird Species on the Brink.” In it, scientists constructed the ranges of 604 North American bird species and then modeled how these ranges would differ under different climate projections. It only takes a few minutes using their interactive bird range maps to notice the drastic changes that will occur as our planet warms. In order to escape rising temperatures, some species, even the Common Loon (Gavia immer), will be forced to move further North. Currently, loons breed in the northern United States, southern and central Canada, and Alaska; however, a global temperature rise of 2.0 degrees Celsius would shift their range far northward, eradicating their haunting calls and their ability to live almost anywhere in the continental US, forcing them into some of the most northern parts of arctic Canada. Other species, like the Mountain Bluebird (Sialia currucoides), that live at lower altitudes will be pushed further and further up into the mountains where the temperature is cooler.

Yet such changes in range do not guarantee the survival of any species. In a last-ditch effort to escape the heat, these birds will find themselves in environments that they may be unable to thrive in. Even if a Common Loon or Mountain Bluebird has found solace in a cooler location, their new homes may be missing the food, shelter, and ecosystems they rely on to survive. In fact, Audubon researchers concluded that nearly ⅔ of North American birds are at increasing risk of extinction. But birds are not the only ones in danger.

It is estimated that by 2100, 13 million American climate refugees will be fleeing their homes to escape rising sea levels. Whole cities will become uninhabitable as sea water floods schools, businesses, and homes. Like birds, human migration away from the coasts does not guarantee anyone’s safety. Matt Hauer, the lead researcher for the refugee study in Nature Climate Change, explains that “Not everyone can afford to move, so we could end up with trapped populations that would be in a downward spiral.” In many places across the globe and some places in the United States, climate refugees already exist as a result of wildfires, droughts, sea level rise, hurricanes, monsoons, and other climate disasters.

Lake Charles home after Hurricane Delta in 2020. Grist. Chandan Khanna/AFP via Getty Images.

The people of Lake Charles, Louisiana, for instance, continue to be bombarded with worsening natural disasters. Through hurricanes and winter storms, the community has struggled to hold on to their homes, and it has become too difficult for many. In 2020, 6.7% of Lake Charles residents left the area, an increase of 5% from the 2019 net-out migration statistics. With each passing storm or flood, an increasing number of people lose everything they have. This issue has become so pressing that President Biden issued an executive order in February focused on studying the impact of climate change on migration.

Each time I hear the startling statistics about the future of America’s climate refugees, I think about my parents who still live in South Florida. They are some of the lucky people who have not already been forced out of their neighborhoods. And yet, each year they worry about superstorms like Irma and Maria, their eyes tracking maps to see if our neighborhood is in danger. They buy more and more protection from the heat and watch as the sea inches closer to the communities they grew up in. Our backyard birds have always warned us of storms, and now they warn us of something even more dire — the impending loss of our home.

It is easy to feel helpless against a problem so daunting, but we are not. The ⅔ of North American birds at risk of extinction demonstrate the connectedness of all life on Earth. We face the same threats, but this means we can benefit from the same solutions. The effects of conservation do not exist in a bubble; when we take steps to conserve endangered species and habitats, we save human communities, too, especially those most on the brink of climate disasters.

Instituto Terra in 2001 versus 2019. Instituto Terra’s Facebook page

As a child, Sebastião Salgado lived on his parents’ cattle farm in the midst of a lush forest until desertification and drought transformed it into a barren land. Farmers, including his father, could no longer grow food, and it became uninhabitable for animals and humans. However, Sebastião and his wife Lélia Deluiz Wanick Salgado have worked for two decades reverting the land to its former glory. The home is now known as Instituto Terra, an educational center for the conservation of forests, protection of water, and proper use of natural resources. By returning the land to one where animals and plants can thrive, the Salgados have also ensured that humans can survive on the land, and they certainly do more than just survive. The workers at Instituto Terra conduct research, produce native seedlings, and educate others on how to properly complete conservation efforts. The Salgados have conserved beloved animals and the Atlantic Forest ecosystem while preserving themselves and their community.

Replanting an entire ecosystem is not an accessible solution for many, but we can all help in one simple way: communicating. Conservation and self-preservation are one and the same, and when we have conversations about the connections between ourselves and nature, we increase public awareness about the dire need for climate action. Talk to your friends, family, neighbors, or total strangers about the threats we face as a global community. Rachel Carson understood decades ago that “man is a part of nature, and his war against nature is inevitably a war against himself.” The consequences of this war have certainly started to reveal themselves, but we still have time to turn the tide, both for our beloved birds and for ourselves.

Isabel Wood: RCC Stanback Presidential Intern

Isabel Wood is the co-lead with Ross Feldner and Bob Musil of the RCC Bird Watch and Wonder Program.

She is a Junior at Duke University majoring in Environmental Science and Policy with a certificate in Documentary Studies. [email protected]