San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

For the Birds, Climate Threat Here and Now

Biologist Cagan Sekercioglu spends his free time creeping through Costa Rica’s leafy jungles, searching for birds with obscure names, like the large-footed finch, the timberline wren and the volcano junco.

If predictions from a report he recently co-authored come true, he may soon be looking for a new hobby and a new home for his beloved birds.

Sekercioglu, from StanfordUniversity in California, and other leading conservation biologists warn that climate change could wipe one of every three species of land birds off the world map by the end of the century.

The wren, junco and finch – all of which live in cool-weather, high-altitude forests in Costa Rica – are three of many at risk in Costa Rica.

“As the climate warms, they’ll have nowhere to go but extinct,” said Sekercioglu, who has co-led a project in Costa Rica that has banded more than 35,000 birds of 246 different species.

He calls the birds’ plight the “escalator to extinction.” It’s a straight-line relationship, said Sekercioglu.

“The higher the elevation range of a bird, the more likely it is to be threatened with extinction,” he said. “It’s a perfect line.”

Even crowd-pleasing favorites, like the gaudy resplendent quetzal, will likely feel the squeeze.

The comprehensive report, said Sekercioglu, meshes the most up-to-date climate change predictions from the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) with range maps of bird species worldwide.

The study is the first of its kind, he said – and the results are alarming because most of the birds at risk are currently doing just fine.

“Only 21% of the species predicted to become extinct in our scenarios are currently threatened,” said Sekercioglu.

The worst-case scenario – a rise in temperature of 6.4 degrees Celsius – could drive upward of 2,150 birds to extinction by 2100.

Even a modest rise in temperature – which many scientists believe to be a near certainty as global-warming causing greenhouse gases continue to spew from industrialized nations – could result in 400 to 550 bird extinctions.

“We need more studies of long-term species distribution, to really understand how all species will be affected,” he said.

According to Sekercioglu, such studies, which can take decades to unravel, are unpopular in today’s fast-paced world, where scientists jockey to get ahead with quick, sensationalized studies.

Birds aren’t the only species to be affected, warn experts.

Costa Rica’s species density – the highest in Central America, according to researchers at INBio, a Costa Rica-based biodiversity research – means all species, plants and animals are highly interdependent.

Remove just a few, and the effects could be disastrous.

The Stanford study brought together an enormous amount of data but it is still just the beginning, he said.

The effects of climate change on vegetation at lower elevations, fires, extreme weather events and other natural disasters are also likely to harm birds and other species.

It should serve as yet another warning – and a battle cry for new studies and heightened concern, he said.

“We have to keep emphasizing it. It’s depressing, but there are so many people in denial. I have seen what we are trying to save, and am speaking up. Otherwise, no one will pay attention.”


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