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National Parks are for the Birds

Happy National Parks week!

While I tend to plan trips around plants — Thuja plicata in Olympic National Park, Lathyrus japonicas at Cape Cod National Seashore — I understand the draw of non-botanical Park residents: the iconic bison in Yellowstone, the wolves and moose of Isle Royale, the bald eagles cruising the coast of Acadia.


Birds are among the most beloved park wildlife, and people — regular visitors, rangers and researchers alike — have been studying birds in National Parks for decades. Bird watchers are among the most consistent and prolific citizen scientists and their observations from National Parks to backyards comprise some of the largest and oldest community-based science research in the country. The most famous datasets of this kind are the Christmas Bird Count and the Breeding Bird Survey. These two datasets — covering a huge spatial area, a long species list, and over three decades of observations — allowed the National Park Service and the National Audubon Society to project bird responses to climate change across the National Park System.

An example of how the bird species list at a National Park is expected to change by mid-century. From Wu et al. 2018, ‘Projected avifaunal responses to climate change across the U.S. National Park System.’

Imagine you are standing in a National Park (I always imagine I am standing in Acadia). Take a moment to identify the avifauna — aka the birds — in this park. Now, zoom into the future, sometimes between 2041 and 2070. What birds are in your National Park now? Has your species list changed? Grown? Shrunk? Park managers, researchers, and bird watchers would all love to know the results from this time traveling exercise. Now, thanks to Dr. Joanna Wu and colleagues, we have these projections available!


In a recent PLoS ONE paper, Wu and coauthors use the Christmas Bird Count and Breeding Bird Survey to model climate suitability for over 500 bird species. Then, they zoom into the future and look around at the projected climatic changes in 274 National Park. From this perspective in the future, they write a new species list for each park: which birds are disappearing, and which new colonizers are expected to move in. They find that most parks are likely to become more bird-y — potential colonizations will exceed extirpations, especially in the winter.


The models of summer and winter distributions were trained on two big, old citizen science projects — the Breeding Bird Survey and the Christmas Bird Count. I asked Wu if it was coincidence that this research was grounded in community-based science, since both Audubon and the National Park Service depend on the general public for support. She writes, “these data sets were the only ones done with survey rigor at a large enough of a spatial scale to allow us to map out bird occupancy across the entire North America. It was certainly meaningful for Audubon as the compilers of the Christmas Bird Count data to rely on our community science products in a scientific study.” This shared enthusiasm between Audubon and the community of birders is reflected in the beautiful website that presents Wu’s findings to the public: you can watch species turnover, click on specific parks, and look at national trends.

A graphic from Audubon’s website presenting the results of this research to the general public.

And it’s not just that birds are charismatic fauna with huge fan bases that are obsessed with making lists (I’m looking at you, birdwatchers). Wu notes, “birds are important ecological indicators because they travel much larger distances on an annual basis (as a whole) than plants or mammals, and may thus be able to track climate better than other taxa.” So, when Wu and her colleagues project changes in bird communities at the National Parks, they are looking at the frontline of ecological changes under anthropogenic climate change. “Though plants and mammals are shifting too, birds are indicators as they’re likely to respond first and more drastically. Of course this leads to a potential mismatch in resource availability as plants, insects, etc. respond at a different rate to climate change, leading to unforeseeable consequences.”


Finally, I asked Wu what we can do if we live and/or work outside of a National Park. Unfortunately, Acadia is not actually home, and I wanted to know how my actual backyard fit into the bigger picture here. “Our research does show that birds are going to be on the move and the corridors between parks are important to support this change. State parks, wildlife sanctuaries, and even back yards are going to be increasingly important places for birds moving to new areas in light of climate change. One of the things we can do is planting native plants to provide resources for birds as they face unprecedented change to the climates and habitats they evolved in in the coming decades.”


Enjoy National Park Week! Happy birding!



Wu JX, Wilsey CB, Taylor L, Schuurman GW (2018) Projected avifaunal responses to climate change across the U.S. National Park System. PLoS ONE 13(3): e0190557. https://doi. org/10.1371/journal.pone.0190557





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