State of the Birds

Black-capped chickadee © Derek Allad
© Derek Allad

Listen To Your Mothers

In 1896, everyone who could afford a hat wore one—the more ornate the better. The fashion arbiters of the times fell head-over-heels for feathers as the adornments du jour, and there was only one place to get them: from birds. Millions of birds were killed as the millinery and feather trades boomed.

Enter our Founding Mothers: Minna Hall and Harriet Hemenway. They advocated for an end to the plume hunting and formed Mass Audubon to help change the world. So, how would Hall and Hemenway respond to today’s most urgent call for conservation action: to protect the nature of Massachusetts from losses caused by climate change?

They would do what they did before: collect the data, share their information and influence with others, and stand for protecting wildlife, all with diligence and grace. This is what Mass Audubon has aimed to accomplish with State of the Birds: Massachusetts Birds and Our Changing Climate.

Back To The Future

Northern bobwhite © Paul McCarthy
© Paul McCarthy

Developing a document to summarize the challenges our birds face as the climate changes has taken us into new territory. For previous editions of State of the Birds, released in 2011 and 2013, we analyzed data from the field to provide evidence of how our bird populations had changed over time. Those documents looked to the past, measured changes, and identified priority conservation actions.

This State of the Birds takes a look into the future. We used current data to establish the preferred climates for various bird species (their “climate envelopes”), and then compared this information against climate projections for the future. By this method, we aimed to estimate how climate change would alter the distribution of each species from its current position by the year 2050.

Ultimately, the new State of the Birds has sought to answer two questions: In light of the additional stress of climate change, how will our breeding birds fare through the year 2050? And, which species are projected to benefit from the warming climate (i.e. winners) and which will face additional stress (losers)?

Within the 143 breeding bird species analyzed, we found projected winners like the northern bobwhite, as well as losers like the ruffed grouse. Some results were surprising; some expected. Overall, we determined that 58 percent of those 143 species are either Highly Vulnerable or Likely Vulnerable to significant shifts in the Massachusetts climate. This means that, from a climate perspective, we will likely see a decline in these species over the next 30 years if they are unable to adapt to the changes caused by a warming climate.

Changes For Our State Bird 

Our newest State of the Birds analysis suggests that the Massachusetts state bird, the black-capped chickadee, could be declining in Massachusetts by 2050. This result is surprising, considering the chickadee is currently such a commonly encountered bird in the Commonwealth. However, given the species’ accessibility—they tend to nest in and around developed areas and use feeders and nest boxes—the black-capped chickadee may present an excellent opportunity for measuring changes in this species as the climate warms. Will they retract from some areas? Will their abundance decline? As the distribution of black-capped chickadees shifts northward, will they be replaced by their southern cousin, the Carolina chickadee? Only a carefully designed and long-term study will help us understand if these predictions are right, and that idea is worth exploring with partners in Massachusetts and beyond.

Beyond Birds

Understanding the potential effects that a changing climate will have on our breeding birds by the year 2050 is critical for protecting our birds—and, as we have learned in the past, ourselves. But how can one person, family, business, or school help?

The answer is simple: it has always been the actions of individuals that have forged revolution and change, and that holds true today. Building the best Massachusetts in advance of 2050 for our children and grandchildren means practicing “old school” conservation.

We reduce our impact by making the switch to green energy, eating more veggies and less beef, and driving less often and more efficiently. We also advocate relentlessly for science-based policies that protect land, air, and water, and we take time to share nature with our friends and families.

Climate change presents a daunting challenge for our planet, but it is a problem we can solve. Let’s all be like Minna Hall and Harriet Hemenway. Let’s learn about this challenge, take action to protect wildlife, and give the gift of nature to future generations.

Learn more about the State of the Birds and its results.

Explore the Report