The Policy & Practice of Climate Change & Water

Climate change altering wetlands, affecting bird migration in the American West

Summer Lake Wildlife Area

The Summer Lake Wildlife Area is a wildlife refuge in south-central Oregon. Photo by Susan Haig, U.S. Geological Survey. CC BY-SA 2.0

CORVALLIS, Oregon, USA. – New research shows that recent climate change is having profound effects on wetlands across the American West – affecting birds that use these wetlands for breeding, migration and wintering.

According to a study published today in the journal Scientific Reports, long-term trends towards higher temperatures and less precipitation have altered environmental water quality and reduced waterbird habitat, creating clear winners and losers in bird species and potentially threatening the integrity of the Pacific migratory flyway for many species. The study, which began in the mid-1990s, is the result of a research collaboration between scientists at Oregon State University, U.S. Geological Survey, University of California, Merced; and the Alliance for Global Water Adaptation.

Study co-author John H. Matthews, Executive Director of the Alliance for Global Water Adaptation, said, “Migrating, breeding, developing and post-breeding birds need water, but they also need good quality water. This is one of the first studies globally to show that climate change is altering water quality. If shifts in climate can alter water quality for birds, then climate change can alter our water quality too. These bird populations are the canary in the coal mine for all of us.”

The researchers examined more than a century’s worth of temperature and precipitation data across the Great Basin, which spans nearly all of Nevada, much of Oregon and Utah, and portions of California, Idaho and Wyoming. They compared the data with more than 50 years of results from the U.S. Geological Survey Breeding Bird Surveys, which began in 1968.

The research focused on waterbirds, which are species that include shorebirds, ducks, geese, swans, herons and rails. The Great Basin is a major part of the Pacific Flyway, a major north-south route for migratory birds in North America. During spring migration, more than 2 million waterfowl pass through the southern Oregon-northeastern California region of the Pacific Flyway.

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