Climate Change, Development Threatens State Bird Populations

Oct 24, 2019

A recent report from the National Audubon Society says two-thirds of America’s birds are threatened with extinction from climate change. That includes half of Colorado’s bird species and our state bird — the lark bunting.

As a grassland bird, researchers say it has been hit especially hard by climate change and habitat degradation. Clark Jones, vice president of the Aiken Audubon Society and a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. While his views don't necessarily reflect those of his employer, Jones says the issue for the lark bunting is not only a decreasing amount of habitat, but also its quality and configuration.

Clark Jones looks for birds.
Credit Ali Budner / 91.5 KRCC

Driving slowly through a field at Schriever Air Force Base, he points to a group of birds hopping through the nearby grass and brush.

“I don’t know what they’re eating but you can see they’re kind of fluttering up and grabbing stuff and then going back down,” he says.

Jones’ job here at the base involves helping the Department of Defense with habitat management and wildlife monitoring. That includes the lark bunting, a small songbird with a thick, bluish gray bill, which despite its name, is a type of sparrow.

“They’re not larks or buntings,” he says laughing.

While its name is a bit deceptive, there’s one thing that is very clear about the ground-dwelling bird — its future is up in the air.

According to this latest Audubon report, lark bunting populations have decreased by 30 million since 1970. Researchers cite extreme spring heat and increased fire weather in the bird’s range, which spans central Canada to the mid-western United States. Jones says growing cities also pose a problem.

“If you just look at Colorado Springs and how fast it’s moving eastward, you’re going to lose that part of the habitat,” he says. “And then, if the forecasts are correct, we have this increased drought going forward and increased frequency of drought, you’re going to have fewer birds spending time nesting in Colorado.”

Jones says that could mean the Colorado state bird may not even live here in the future.

Under current global warming projections the lark bunting could lose 19 percent of its overall habitat. According to the Audubon Society, in a 3 degree Celsius warming scenario, lark buntings could lose 34 percent of their summer range in Colorado with an additional 13 percent of their summer habitat becoming less suitable.

Current projections says the Mountain Bluebird - the state bird of Idaho and Nevada - is likely to lose 38 percent of its overall range.

A male lark bunting forages for food at Schriever Air Force Base in Colorado Springs.
Credit Photo Courtesy Clark Jones

But Bruce Stein, Chief Scientist at the National Wildlife Federation says the “state bird” status could be key in their protection.

“I think state birds and state flowers[are] one expression of the affinity that we have for nature and when we start saying the potential effect that climate change has on what we think of as the symbols of our state, hopefully that will spur people into action both from a wildlife conservation as well as a climate action perspective,” he says.

Stein hopes lawmakers are also spurred into action, in part, to pass a piece of federal legislation aimed at preventing issues to the point where protection from the Endangered Species Act is necessary. The Recovering America’s Wildlife Act (RAWA) has wide bipartisan support and would provide states with $1.3 billion in dedicated funding for wildlife management strategies and habitat restoration.

“It would provide about $27 million dollars of additional funds for Colorado to help protect the more than 350 species that that state has identified as being in particular need of conservation attention,” he says.

The act was sponsored by U.S. Representative Debbie Dingell, a Democrat from Michigan, It recently had a hearing in a subcommittee of the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources. During the discussion, which was streamed live on Facebook, Dingell said lawmakers have an economic and moral rationale to act.

“It’s an opportunity for all of us to work together to take historic action to address a pressing conservation need,” she said.

RAWA would expand existing legislation funded through an excise tax on firearms, ammunition, bows and arrows. That money is then given to states for conservation purposes as well as hunter education and archery and shooting ranges. The proposed funding would supplement it.

Some say the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act is fiscally irresponsible. That includes Tom McClintock, a Republican Congressman from California.

“I would ask my democratic colleagues to stop wasting this committees time appeasing their environmental supporters and start working on real reforms that will actually protect habitat and save lives,” he said.

Homes are immediately adjacent to the field where Clark Jones points out lark buntings and other grassland birds. The birds are threatened by climate change and habitat loss.
Credit Ali Budner / 91.5 KRCC

McClintock also said the legislation, “raids the treasury in perpetuity.”

Back in the field at the Air Force base in Colorado Springs, Clark Jones with the Aiken Audubon Society says the solution will require a balance of needs, especially as the state’s population continues to expand.

“Here we are in this part of the world where you can see Kansas and you can develop all the way to Kansas,” he says looking over the field. “And land is cheap, so…”

Discussions surrounding the recovering America’s Wildlife are ongoing.

91.5 KRCC's Ali Budner contributed to this report.