Climate change may push Michigan into no-fly zone for many bird species

Jim Lynch
The Detroit News

When someone among the faithful birding community in the Mount Pleasant area comes across a Bohemian waxwing, word about a rare sighting of the bird gets out quickly through social media and cellphones.

But even the best communication tools might not help birders find their favorites in the coming decades. A study released this week by the Audubon Society asserts that climate change will drastically alter the habitats of dozens of species nationwide and, in some cases, lead to their extinction in 65 years. At least one university biologist says the state is already experiencing some of these bird habitat changes.

The Audubon Society study paints a grim future when, by 2080, “the climate model projects, dozens of avian species across the country could be hurtling toward extinction — and not just birds that are already in trouble.” Conditions that attract birds during certain times of the year are changing, meaning the geographic locations where they flourish might shrink or move if the society’s climate model proves accurate.

For Michigan, located in the heart of the Great Lakes as well as in the migratory route known as the Mississippi Flyway, it might mean the departure of several cherished species and drastically reduced numbers of others. And it might affect several communities financially.

By 2080 in Michigan, according to the Audubon Society’s projections:

■11 species will lose at least 90 percent of their summertime habitat.

■38 species will lose at least 70 percent of their summertime habitat.

■Four species will lose at least 70 percent of their wintertime habitat.

Stan Lilley is among those in the Mount Pleasant region who tell other birders when something special shows its beak in the area. He said the Bohemian waxwing, with its bright under-tail coloring and chestnut flush around the face, is usually seen during the colder months.

“We don’t get to see a ton of them here already,” Lilley said. “As climate change takes hold, they may stay farther north.”

The waxwing is among the Michigan birds whose habitat during the summer breeding months is likely to change most drastically. In the Audubon Society’s report, which matches decades of “citizen-scientist observations” on habitat with “internationally recognized greenhouse gas emissions scenarios,” the waxwing and the Blackburnian warbler are both expected to lose 100 percent of their summer habitats by 2080.

Other birds with a Michigan presence that will lose more than 90 percent of their breeding habitats include the black-throated green warbler, the evening grosbeak, the mourning warbler, the Nashville warbler, the scarlet tanager, the magnolia warbler and the hooded merganser.

The trends projected in the study are already underway in the state, said Nancy Seefelt, a biologist at Central Michigan University.

In some cases, longstanding Michigan species are becoming more scarce. Other species are beginning to show up in Michigan far more often than in the past, such as the Carolina wren that is found in southern Michigan.

“Birds are kind of like ecological indicators,” Seefelt said. “If something is wrong with the birds, then there is probably something wrong with your bigger picture.”

The effects may go beyond disappointed birders, she said.

People come from all over the world to places like Mio to get a glimpse of the Kirtland’s warbler — a songbird that makes Michigan its exclusive home during the warmer months before heading off to the Bahamas for winter. The U.S. Forest Service offers summer tours for those who’ve made the trip to see the birds. Each year in mid-May, Tawas Point State Park in East Tawas hosts a birding festival that draws roughly 200 species a year.

“Birding is one of the top outdoor activities, and this could have an effect on eco-tourism,” Seefelt said. “There is a lot of money in it.”

Several birds like the Kirtland’s warbler — which are directly linked to certain geographic areas — may move on, said Johnathan Lutz, executive director of the Michigan Audubon Society. The evening grosbeak also is one of those.

“That bird is sort of the signature of Hartwick Pines State Park in Grayling,” Lutz said. “You can find them year-round here, and they’re one of the first things people see when they come to the park and look out the windows of the visitors center.”

(313) 222-2034