Birds on the brink

Climate change a dire threat to many of our beloved birds

|  Story by Meghan McMahon  |


It is difficult to imagine a world without birds because they are ingrained in our landscape, adding to the colors and sounds of each season. Robins signal spring is near, and dark-eyed juncos are a sign winter is imminent. Many people look forward to the annual migrations of birds big and small and in between — from sweet-singing warblers to American pelicans to majestic sandhill cranes.

These and many other birds play an integral role in our environment and ecosystem, but for many bird species, populations are plummeting at alarming rates, according to the National Audubon Society. The bird population in North America has fallen by 25 percent since 1970, with the continent now home to 3 billion fewer birds than about half a century ago

Threats to birds are vast and varied, including everything from habitat loss to the outdoor cat population, but of increasing concern is the effects climate change will have on birds. Two-thirds of the bird species in North America are at risk of extinction from global temperature rise, according to a sweeping study by the National Audubon Society titled “Survival By Degrees: 389 Bird Species on the Brink.”

For the study, scientists for the Audubon Society studied 604 bird species from North America using 140 million bird records and then plugged that data into climate models used by more than 800 experts from across the world. This then allowed the scientists to map where each bird species might live in different climate change scenarios with temperature increases of 1.5 degrees, 2 degrees and 3 degrees Celsius.

While a global temperature change of 3 degrees Celsius may seem drastic, it’s not. If the planet continues to warm at current trends, it will increase by 3 degrees Celsius by 2100, according to National Geographic. Even slowing that warmup to 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2100 will require immediate and drastic action. 

‘Unlivable climate conditions’ 

A red-headed woodpecker on a branch.

Red-headed woodpecker (Photo via Shutterstock)

Nearly two-thirds of the bird species in North America — 389 of the 604 species — are at risk of facing “unlivable climate conditions across most of their current ranges by 2080 if global temperatures remain on track to rise by 3 degrees Celsius,” according to the report. 

The Audubon Society identifies 10 birds in Will County that are highly vulnerable to the effects of climate change and another 32 that are moderately vulnerable. The highly vulnerable birds are the eastern whip-poor-will, red-headed woodpecker, wood thrush, brown thrasher, field sparrow, Henslow’s sparrow, scarlet tanager, eastern towhee, bobolink and cerulean warbler. Among the birds that are moderately vulnerable are the Canada goose, sandhill crane, American robin and indigo bunting.

Not all birds have such uncertain futures in the face of rising global temperatures. Several local species — 32 in all — are considered to have low vulnerability to climate change, according to the study. These include the bald eagle, cedar waxwing, mallard and black-capped chickadee.

Another 54 bird species are classified as stable, including the wild turkey, ruby-throated hummingbird, great blue heron and northern cardinal. 


Sights to see

An eastern whip-poor-will on a branch.

Eastern whip-poor-will. (Photo via Shutterstock)

The birds most at risk, those categorized as highly and moderately vulnerable, may lose vast amounts of their range as a result of rising temperatures, forcing them to look elsewhere for suitable habitat and climate conditions, according to the report.

Some of the most highly vulnerable birds are common sights in and around our preserves, or at least they used to be. Take the eastern whip-poor-will. Bob Bryerton, an interpretive naturalist with the Forest Preserve, recently heard one at Goodenow Grove Nature Preserve, but it had been a long time since he had.

“They used to be pretty common, but are really rare now. I can’t remember the last one I heard before that,” he said.

Others of the at-risk birds still exist in fairly large numbers in the Will County preserves, Bryerton said. Red-headed woodpeckers and field sparrows are both common sights, but that can be deceiving. Although we still frequently see and hear these woodpeckers and sparrows, their populations are declining and they are at risk because of climate change, according to the report.

Some of the Will County birds most at risk from the effects of climate change have specific habitat requirements, which make them especially vulnerable to habitat loss as well. The Henslow’s sparrow, for example, lives in open grassy areas, Bryerton said. And the bobolink is a rare find in Will County because it requires a specific type of field habitat.

A disappearing act in the making?

A bobolink on vegetation.

Bobolink (Photo via Shutterstock)

Birds respond to climate change by shifting their range, but our climate is changing at an unprecedented rate — more than 20 times faster than any period over the past 2 million years, according to the Audubon Society. 

As the temperature rises, each bird species’ natural range shifts, with some range lost, some gained and some remaining stable. The degree to which a particular species loses its native range varies based on how much global temperatures rise. For some species, the loss of range may be devastating or even catastrophic, forcing species to the brink of extinction, the Audubon Society reports.

Take, for example, the great gray owl, which lives mainly in the forests of Canada, Alaska and, to a lesser extent, small pockets in the northwestern United States. As temperatures rise, the owls’ range shrinks. If Earth’s temperature were to rise another 1.5 degrees C, it would lose 59 percent of its current summer range, according to the study. If the temperature were to rise 3 degrees C, nearly all of its current summer range — 97 percent to be exact — would be rendered unlivable for the owls.

The example of the great gray owl may be extreme, but more than half of the bird species in North America — 389 of the 604 bird species that live on our continent — are vulnerable to extinction as a result of climate change. Here’s a look at some of the birds in Will County that are highly vulnerable and how their range would be affected as Earth’s temperature rises.




In addition to losing their natural range, climate change brings other dangers as well. As Earth gets warmer, many more birds will be affected by intensifying and more severe weather events, the Audubon Society reports. Among these weather threats are more wildfires, droughts, heat waves, heavy rains and floods, and false springs. Global temperature increases will also cause sea levels to rise, consuming land along the coasts. And climate change will also cause more land to be both urbanized and converted to agricultural use, taking over vital bird habitats. 

Other major threats

Aerial view of Rock Run Rookery.

Rock Run Rookery Preserve (Photo by Chad Merda)

While climate change poses a significant and dire threat to many birds, it is far from the only thing affecting avian populations in the United States. Another significant threat is loss of habitat. Each year in the United States, millions of acres of bird habitat are lost or degraded due to development, agriculture or forestry practices, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Building collisions are another major cause of bird mortality in the United States. Between 365 million and 988 million birds die every year as a result of window collisions, the fish and wildlife service reports. Millions more birds die each year colliding with vehicles and electrical lines.  

Even cats pose a significant risk to bird populations. Each year, cats kill an astonishing 2.4 billion birds in the United States, according to the American Bird Conservancy. While feral cats will kill birds for food, even well-fed pet cats will hunt and kill birds.

What we are doing

Water smartweed.

Water smartweed (Photo by Chris Cheng)

The Forest Preserve District of Will County includes habitat restoration as part of its mission, and that work is always ongoing. The goal of habitat restoration is to provide habitat for the flora and fauna that existed here prior to settlement, said Ralph Schultz, the Forest Preserve’s chief operating officer. 

The District aims to restore about 50 acres per year, but in many years that figure is exceeded, he said. The benefits of the work include expanding the biodiversity of an area as well as providing clean water and clean air and increasing carbon sequestration, which is the process of capturing carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, from the atmosphere.

“These are all of the things we would look for in a healthy environment,” Schultz said. 

The work is costly and time-consuming, so the District relies on grants and partnerships with other agencies and groups in its habitat restoration work, Schultz said.

Once land is slated for habitat restoration, the work starts by controlling the water on the site, Schultz said. The hydrology work might include removing drain tiles or redirecting or damming a creek, for example. The next step is planting seeds to restore the native flora, which is followed by a period of several years of intense management of the land.

This management might include invasive species removal and prescribed burns, all as part of the plan to return the land to its native state and allow the flora and fauna to thrive. 

“We know what used to live here, so our goal is to do the best we can to restore that,” he said.


Two habitat restoration successes for the District include work done at Kankakee Sands Preserve, which was recognized earlier this year by the National Association of County Park and Recreation Officials, and a project completed at Hadley Valley preserve, which last month earned Excellence in Ecological Restoration Program accreditation.

What you can do

A bee on purple coneflower.

Purple coneflower (Photo by Glenn P. Knoblock)

Tackling climate change may seem out of your control, but there are simple things you can do that will have a positive effect. Here are a few ideas:

Be insect-friendly: Many of the birds that live in Illinois are insect eaters, at least in the warmer months, so having an insect-friendly yard helps birds too. You can help the birds by maintaining a chemical-free lawn and garden that allows insects to thrive. This in turn provides a steady food supply for many birds. Buying organic produce is another way to be insect-friendly.

Plant native plants: If you want your yard to be a bounty for the birds, plant native plants. Lawns and wide expanses of manicured grasses are food deserts for birds and other wildlife. When you add native plants to your yard and gardens, you provide food sources for birds as well as the insects they eat. Native plants are best because they are indigenous to a particular area, so they are adapted to the climate and soil conditions where they grow.

Be a bird counter: If you enjoy watching birds, you can participate in any of several annual bird-watching and reporting events, including the Christmas Bird Count, held each year in December, the Great Backyard Bird Count, held over a weekend in February each year, and the Global Big Day bird count, held each May. These sorts of bird counts are useful to scientists and researchers because they provide a wealth of data on bird populations and how they change over time. 


Head outdoors: Even getting outside and seeing birds will help you develop or grow your appreciation for these creatures. If you want to learn more about the birds that call Will County home, attend one of the Forest Preserve District’s bird-watching programs.

(Lead image by Chris Cheng)

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