Changing weather brings new species of birds to New York
If you need proof that climate change has altered the city’s wildlife, look no further than the black vultures soaring above Midtown Manhattan. These towering, bald scavengers have a wingspan of nearly five feet and have traditionally inhabited South America, Central America, and the southern United States.
But the black vulture appears to be here for the foreseeable future, along with 20 or 30 species that have recently expanded their range in New York. As weather patterns have changed, habitats have shrunk, and food supplies have dwindled, the migration patterns of birds have also changed.
“It would have been unheard of,” said Andrew Farnsworth, a researcher at Cornell University’s Ornithology Laboratory, of spotting a black vulture in Manhattan 30 or 40 years ago. Now, more than 300 sightings have been recorded in the city since March 2022, according to the eBird citizen science project run by Cornell. Black vultures are moving north due to milder temperatures and the ability to forage in suburbs closer to the city, Dr Farnsworth said. He estimated that no less than 30 new species have joined the more than 200 species of birds that regularly spend time in the metropolitan area.
Some birds were hurt by all the changes; others seem to adapt. But in a delicately formed ecosystem, the presence of a new species or the disappearance of a species can have cascading impacts on the entire habitat.
Species like the American robin and Canada goose are relatively new to wintering around New York, said David Wiedenfeld, a conservation scientist at the American Bird Conservancy. Because snow cover is less prevalent than it once was, these species can stay further north and feed on the ground even in winter. The populations of these two birds are growing.
In New York Harbor, waders like herons and egrets now have fewer places to go, said Dustin Partridge, director of conservation science for the New York City Audubon Society.
The group has studied waders in the area since 1985 and found that rising sea levels, among other factors, could reduce the small islands that dot the habitat. In 2000, there were 15 active colonies of waders in and around the harbor, according to data from the city of Audubon. In 2022 there were just six, the lowest number on record, Dr Partridge said.
Piping plovers — small, black-eyed shorebirds that nest in the sands of the Rockaways and along other shorelines near the city — face a similar fate. Their habitats are also shrinking and their nests are threatened by storm washouts. But even if global warming is limited to just 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels – the target that scientists say could help avoid the most extreme effects of climate change – the Piping Plover would lose still more than 60% of its summer range along the east coast. Coastline and in the Great Lakes and Great Plains regions, as calculated by the Audubon Society.
Earlier springs could bring further challenges to the birds. Warblers, for example, have historically passed through New York City in their millions along the long spring migration routes from the Caribbean and South America to Canada. In a changing climate, their en route food supply – insects – could peak in population before the arrival of migrating birds, depleting their energy reserves on a long journey.
But at least one warbler can benefit from an earlier spring. A 2013 study found that New Hampshire black-throated blue warblers brooded two broods — double the usual rate in a single season — because they started breeding earlier in the year.
A landmark study published in 2019 found that three billion birds disappeared from North America between 1970 and 2019, a decline of around 30% over half a century. Although the study did not investigate the causes of the decline, habitat loss and degradation were cited as major factors, along with cats, collisions and pesticide use. In a Times Opinion article, John W. Fitzpatrick and Peter P. Marra, heads of the Cornell Lab and the Georgetown Environment Initiative, described the findings as “a staggering loss that suggests the very fabric of the North American ecosystem is falling apart.”
Beyond climate change, New York’s birds are most immediately threatened by other human actions; Between 90,000 and 230,000 migrating birds are killed each year in collisions with buildings in New York City, according to the city’s Audubon Society.
Safe places for birds have always been limited in the city. Large green spaces like Central Park, Forest Park and Prospect Park are crucial for food and shelter. But the needs of birds, which can require fallen leaves and branches to stay in place, are often at odds with the well-maintained parks favored by many New Yorkers.
Yet bird-specific conservation has been the subject of municipal legislation in recent years. In 2019, the city council passed Local Law 15, requiring new buildings to be constructed with collision-proof materials. In 2021, the city approved a measure requiring non-essential lights outside city-owned buildings to be turned off at night during important migration times.
The New York City Audubon Society is also pushing lawmakers to extend the ban on alien nighttime lighting to private buildings, and it has also lent its support to the Dark Skies Act, a citywide “extinguished” bill. the state introduced last year, according to Tod Winston, a researcher with the organization.
For Mr. Winston, it is crucial to defend the protection of birds before it is too late. He says the ‘canary in the coal mine’ metaphor is apt when it comes to birds and climate change.
“All of our societies depend on these natural systems of insects, birds, plants in multiple ecosystems across the earth,” Winston said. The changes affecting the birds should serve as a warning, he added, that “people have problems too”.