Climate Change: Birds May be at Great Risk of Warming Temperatures

First Posted: Nov 17, 2015 01:05 PM EST

Birds may be declining in the face of climate change. Scientists have found that at least a dozen species in the Western Cape will be impacted by climate, and that their decline may be more complex than previously thought.

"We know climate change is linked to changes in species' numbers and distributions, but we don't always know exactly how or why," said Susie Cunningham, one of the researchers, in a news release. "We need to figure out the factors actually driving declines before we can develop proper conservation measures to halt them."

In this latest study, the researchers examined the well-being of 12 fynbos bird species based on a comparison of data contained in two South Africa Bird Atlas surveys conducted 15 years apart. The data was matched with climate data for the comparative period, as well as with physiological data. A key aspect of the study is a comparison of climate and bird population data with the heat response of each bird species.

The researchers found striking similarity between bird declines and increases in average temperature. This was most notable in two bird species occupying cooler rangelands, including the Cape Rockjumper and the Protea Seed-eater. In fact, reporting rates of these two species dropped by 31 percent and 32 percent respectively in the study area during the time period.

"Fynbos birds are particularly important in this regard because they live in an area that has been extremely stable, climatologically speaking, for a very long time," said Cunningham. "So changes in climate are not something they are used to. Furthermore, six of the species we studied are endemic to the fynbos, so if we lose them from this biome, we lose them altogether."

The findings reveal a bit more about how bird species cope with temperature, and show the importance of conservation strategies as temperatures rise.

The findings are published in the journal Conservation Physiology.

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