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Migratory birds are making their way back, but climate change and urbanization are affecting them

 A flock of crows sits on power lines and tree branches.
Nicole Dillon
Wyoming Public Media
Crows perched at evening in Laramie.

With the arrival of spring, migratory birds are making their way back to Wyoming. However, climate change and urbanization are affecting some species’ migration patterns. Wyoming Public Radio’s Nicole Dillon spoke with Zach Hutchinson, the Community Science Coordinator with Audubon Rockies, to understand how birds are adjusting to changes in their environment and how Wyominigites can make a difference.

Editor’s note: This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Nicole Dillon: So to your knowledge, has climate change affected these migration patterns in any species of bird?

Zach Hutchinson: Yes, we are seeing multiple weeks changes in migration in songbirds and other birds as well. Birds are returning to areas sometimes before plants and other food sources have started to become available, like the invertebrate population that depends upon the greening of the plants. Well, the birds are sometimes returning before the invertebrates become accessible because the plants haven't greened, even though the birds have returned. So climate change is impacting the return of birds [and] the departure of birds. It's throwing off the timing compared to what was the historical timing of a lot of these species. And, there's ample studies across the continent that show early arrival dates and median arrival dates for species are shifting to earlier and earlier in the year. Some plants are also. They're budding out earlier, and then others aren't and it's creating real issues. [We have] these birds that returned early, but there's not the food availability because the invertebrates are tied to the greening of the plants.

ND: So how are birds in Wyoming and surrounding areas adapting to the urbanization in some areas and then climate change as well?

ZH: Oh, now that is a tougher question. And that is why we're doing the work we're doing. Some species adapt to humans really well. When you think about Red-Tailed Hawks and Great-Horned Owls, invasive species such as House Sparrows and the European Starling [are examples of species] introduced to the region that aren't necessarily invasive, but they didn't occur before humans, like the wild turkey. The wild turkey was a species brought into Wyoming as part of game bird hunting efforts. And so, those species are benefiting greatly from humans. And there are plenty of other species that I can point to and say they have received some sort of population benefit from humans. But then others, we're seeing declines across the range, and so a species that is heavily impacted in Wyoming [are the] Wyoming Pinyon Jays. Since the 1970s, the Pinyon Jay has seen population decline over 90 percent. I think it's over 93 percent even. So, that's huge. When you lose over 90 percent of the population of a species, you're starting to talk about it getting into a very dangerous zone. And so, the Pinyon Jays experience that. Something like the Evening Grosbeak, it's the same story. The Evening Grosbeak is a species that, across the entire range, which it has a much larger range than the Pinyon Jay. The Pinyon Jay is dependent upon the Juniper and Pinyon forests of the West. The Evening Grosbeak is across the entire North American continent, and its populations have also crashed over 90 percent since the 70s. And so, some species are responding very poorly to human caused issues and others are finding some benefit in what humans are doing to the landscape. And so it really breaks down differently for birds depending upon what they eat [and] what their habitat needs are. Generalists, generally, are benefiting or experiencing less loss, whereas specialists are seeing greater losses because they have a very specific need. As we affect those needs, we're seeing decline.

ND: So is there anything that people can do to help birds that are being negatively affected by these urbanization and human caused problems?

ZH: Yes, there are some steps that we can take. Let's start with simple steps at home. So some simple steps at home you can take, one of the big ones that we encourage folks to consider, is a switch from water consuming turf grass lawns back into native plants and habitat. We have a program called Habitat Hero that is part of our Plants for Birds initiative. And what it is, is it gives resources to homeowners to go out and get rid of the turf grass, which serves so few species - so few organisms actually can fully utilize the turf grass lawn - and put in native grasses, native flowers, native shrubs, native trees that provide food, shelter, and rearing opportunities for chicks, for birds. And, not just for birds, but other wildlife as well. So our Habitat Hero Plants for Birds initiative, it's great for encouraging and providing resources to people who want to turn their yards back into native habitat. And you benefit as well as a homeowner, you're going to use less water because you're using native plants that are used to living in a more arid climate and dependent on snowpack versus needing constant water throughout the summer. And, then other benefits [are] you get to enjoy the wildlife that come in to use it. You get some savings on that water bill, and you get to enjoy these beautiful blooms in your yard and the wildlife that come in and take advantage. Some other steps that folks can take at home… windows are a bigger problem for birds than we often think about. Birds don't understand reflection and what a reflection is. Oftentimes you don't even know a bird has hit your window and died because oftentimes a predator will scoop it up or the bird will hit your window and fly away and die later from brain trauma. Traumatic brain injury is something that they can survive initially and you think, 'Well the bird flew away, it's fine.' And no, that traumatic brain injury will hurt that bird further down the line. So, what you can do is treat your windows. There are a variety of products on the market, everything from these clear decals that still allow you to see out your window to markers that use a UV liquid that the birds can see really easily. But again, it's clear and you can look right out your window. I've got it on my windows and I'm looking right out and I can still see my bird feeders just fine and the UV markers don't hinder my view whatsoever. So treating windows [is a step people can take]. If you own a business or you work at a place that leaves your lights on all night in a large building with glass windows, artificial light at night attracts birds and can often assist in the collision of birds into windows. Because that artificial light behind the windows can lure the birds [because] they're drawn to it. And again, they don't understand reflections. They'll collide with windows so shutting off lights at night in homes, at businesses, places like that, public spaces, if we can get more lights off, especially during migration, that helps birds a lot.

Nicole Dillon was born in Montana, raised in Sheridan, Wy, and currently resides in Laramie to attend the University of Wyoming. She is pursuing a concurrent degree in Communication and Journalism. After graduating this spring, Nicole hopes to teach English abroad before attending graduate school. She has written feature stories for the Sheridan Press in the past, and is eager to broaden her journalism and communication skills at WPM. In her spare time, she loves reading or doing yoga.
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