CHICAGO — Watching a handful of tiny, fluffy ducklings swim behind momma mallard in the Chicago River may be a thing of the past by the end of the century, according to a new study from the National Audubon Society.
The groundbreaking report, released this week, looked at 30 years of data to determine how habitat ranges of North American birds have shifted due to climate change, and predicts how they'll continue to shift over the next 65 years if climate change continues at its current pace.
Kyla Gardner says many migratory species may not pass through Chicago in the not-too-distant future:
Fewer summer birds
Mallards, the ducks known for their green-necked males and often found in the rivers, lake and fountains and backyards around Chicago, are projected to disappear during the summer from the lower 48 states by 2080.
"It was shocking to everybody that I've talked to, even in Audubon," said Rebeccah Sanders, executive director of Audubon Chicago Region. "It's a bird that we all know ... a bird that people really identify with. It would just be really shocking to lose a species like that."
The species will face a "dramatic and difficult" adjustment, the study said, and they're not the only birds that may no longer call Chicago home in the summer.
The city's ubiquitous ring-billed gull, the red-eyed seagull that stalks the city's parking lots and beaches, may creep north during warm months, too. By the century's end, less than a third of the gull's current summer habitat will remain viable, the study predicted.
Overall, the report found that 314 species, nearly half of North America's bird species, are threatened, and numerous extinctions are possible.
While the winter habitat of mallards and ring-billed gulls remains largely stable — they'll be able to remain in the city for those months — other local bird species are predicted to completely disappear from Chicago, or disappear from the Earth altogether.
Species facing extinction
One Chicago bird facing a poor outlook is the bobolink, a black, yellow and white songbird that calls grasslands in and around the city home each spring after migrating from South America. The already threatened bird has made a comeback in recent years with the restoration of grasslands, like the Bobolink Meadow in Jackson Park, which began restoration in 1989.
But because the bird's populations are already low, it will be especially susceptible to extinction, said Doug Stotz, a senior conservation ecologist at the Field Museum.
"Keeping it in Illinois will be extremely difficult," Stotz said. "Keeping it at all will be asking an awful lot."
The species is predicted to shift its habitat entirely north to the boreal forest of Canada by 2080, a habitat to which the grassland bird may or may not adapt.
Other birds facing a complete exodus from the Chicago region are the black-billed trumpeter swan, the scarlet tanager and the bright blue and white tree swallow.
As birds shift locations due to climate, they may find themselves in regions where they won't be able to find food or places to nest, Sanders said. How well they adapt will determine whether they thrive or die.
"There will be species that won't be able to make those shifts," Stotz said. "People say, 'What's the cost of a single species?' It's fairly minor in most cases. But when you add them all up, it makes a huge difference."
Coming to Chicago
The study predicted that most of the 314 threatened bird species will be forced to shift northward and inland.
That means birds escaping the harsher climate of the South are expected to move in, Sanders said.
In fact, they already have.
Stotz sees summer tanagers, yellow-throated warblers, the blue grosbeaks in Chicago, birds that weren't found here when he moved to the city in the 1980s. Populations of robins and turkey vultures have swelled in recent years, Sanders said.
"Chicago becomes a really important place for bird conservation," Sanders said. "We have a greater responsibility."
To avoid the future the study predicts, the National Audubon Society encourages people to support policies and make lifestyle choices that support clean energy and curb greenhouse gas emissions.
Homeowners also can make their yard more welcoming to birds by planting native grasses, or can get involved in a local chapter of the Audubon Society.
The Chicago Audubon chapter allows volunteers to work side-by-side with forest preserve professionals to conserve grasslands and other natural areas, a land management model that isn't found in many other places in the United States, Sanders said.
"Individuals have a real opportunity to do restoration themselves," Sanders said. "You don't have that outside of the Chicago metro area."
People also can become amateur birders, helping the Audubon Society gather the data it needs to check its first forecast benchmark, the predictions for 2020.
The report is shocking, Sanders said, but she also sees it as an opportunity.
"It gives us a path forward," she said. "Instead of climate change being this big, scary, amorphous thing, we can see climate change in our backyard. We can think about actions we can take to help a scarlet tanager in our backyard."
A full list of birds that make Illinois their home for at least part of the year and their forecasted habitat changes, can be found here.
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