A scientific study published yesterday paints a bleak picture for the future habitats of Europe’s birds, with climate change leading to the disappearance of many bird habitats, as well as the decimation and even extinction of species.
If climate change predictions hold true, a number of species face a very real threat of extinction, while hundreds more species are to be placed in severe peril by the end of the century.
As Europe warms over the 21st century, bird species are expected to move increasingly north of their current concentrations in eastern and central Europe, by an average of nearly 550 kilometres, while their ranges are to be reduced by an average of 20 per cent.
Bird populations in the Mediterranean region are also expected to begin seeking new habitats, as temperatures warm up over the coming 100 years.
But while the year 2100 may seem still a long way off, BirdLife Malta executive director Tolga Temuge yesterday observed that the shift will be gradual as Europe warms, and its more southerly regions begin to dry up.
As such, he comments, “We are already starting to see some of these changes in Europe, with certain butterfly populations, for example, already being observed moving northward.”
BirdLife Malta yesterday joined its fellow European BirdLife International partners in launching a new international scientific publication, a lengthy tome entitled A Climatic Atlas of European Breeding Birds – penned by Prof. Brian Huntley from Durham University and Rhys Green from Cambridge University. The atlas was published in partnership with the UK’s Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, BirdLife International and Durham University.
The study merges field data with climate situation modelling to map the current and potential geographical ranges of most European breeding bird species, analysing just under 400 species in the process, and produces maps for each species.
While several bird species – such as the Peregrine (or Maltese Falcon), the Common Kestrel, the Barn Owl and finches – have already stopped breeding in Malta because of detrimental human intervention and habitat loss, still more species are expected to cease breeding in Malta due to the effects of climate change.
These include the two important sea birds currently breeding in Malta – the Yelkouan Shearwater and the European Storm-petrel. Malta currently hosts 10 per cent of the world’s Yelkouan Shearwater population, and the Mediterranean’s largest population of Storm-petrels – both of which would be driven to seek new breeding grounds, if possible, as climate change takes its toll on their traditional Maltese breeding grounds.
Speaking yesterday, BirdLife Malta conservation manager Andre Raine commented, “Due to reasons such as direct human persecution and habitat loss, Malta has relatively few breeding bird species. It is particularly alarming to note that the models used by Atlas predict that we may lose both these species by the end of the century unless the predicted climate change is averted.”
The study predicts that in the absence of vigorous and immediate action against climate change, the potential future range of the average European bird species will shift by nearly 550 kilometres north-east by the end of the century, while their ranges will be reduced by an average of one-fifth.
While projected changes in some species found only in Europe suggest climate change places them at a highly increased risk of extinction, species found in the arctic, sub-arctic and the Iberian peninsula appear at greatest risk of obliteration due to habitat and range loss.
Certain specialist species, such as the Snowy Owl – immortalised in the Harry Potter books and films – and geographically restricted species such as the Duponts Lark, also stand to face complete extinction.
The study takes a middle of the road approach to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change forecasts, which predict a rise in average global temperature of between 1.4 and 5.8C by the end of the century, and assumes a 3.3C rise above pre-industrial levels. The rate at which the climate is changing, some 40 times faster than the period of global warming, is also a matter of concern for humans and birds alike.
Birds, Dr Raine pointed out, are extremely sensitive to environmental change and, as such, can serve as an early warning system for humans, very much in the way miners use a canary in a coal mine.
In addition to identifying and quantifying the potential threat to Europe’s birds, the study also lays out the means of responding to the challenge facing Europe’s wild bird life. These include taking direct action against climate change itself – by reducing dependency on hydrocarbons and investing in renewable energies such as solar and wind energy – and enhancing the EU’s Natura 2000 network, which combines elements of both the EU’s Habitats and Birds directives.
Mr Temuge added, “This important study provides yet more scientific evidence to show the irreversible effects of climate change if we do not take immediate radical action. Our governments must act now to reduce our dependence on oil and coal and start investing in energy efficiency and renewable sources, such as solar and wind. At the same time, investments in renewables like wind energy should be made in a sustainable way, in order to avoid other problems.”
BirdLife International European Division Head, Dr Clairie Papazoglou, added in a statement yesterday that, “The Climatic Atlas proves once more the importance of the Natura 2000 network in Europe and the implementation of the EU Birds and Habitats Directive across the EU. This is a precondition for helping our wildlife against the impacts of climate change and for supporting Europe’s ecosystems on which we ourselves depend, if we want to come through the climate crisis well.”