LINVILLE — Some of the most notable minds on the environment and conservation in North Carolina came together on Nov. 13 to talk about climate change and how birds are an indicator for environmental health.
North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality Secretary Michael Regan made a trip to attend the discussion, along with a pair of representatives from National Audubon Society. Audubon is a nonprofit noted for its conservation work for wild birds. Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation President Jesse Pope was also part of the panel.
The Audubon representatives spoke about what birds can tell us about environmental health and how the impact of climate change can be seen in bird populations.
A recent report by Audubon pointed to rising temperatures and extreme weather resulting from climate change as a threat that could lead to the extinction of more than 200 species of birds in North Carolina and a threat to 389 species in North America.
The list includes birds like the Wood Thrush, Northern Saw-whet Owl, Ruffed Grouse, Canada Warbler and 20 other warbler species, according to the groups. Native plants face similar threats, including distinctive and important plant communities like beech and hemlock cove forests, they said.
“If we really take action now, we can limit the threat to birds,” Audubon Vice President Andrew Hutson said during the talk, noting three-quarters of those species would no longer be threatened if action can be taken to limit rising global temperatures to a 1.5 degrees-Celsius increase.
Birds that watchers would commonly see could become infrequent. Migratory species that are seen in the area only a handful of times a year can suddenly become even more difficult to find, and the success of one species is not necessarily a good sign for others. The American crow for instance, an opportunist, adapts well to urban environments.
Hutson asked the crowd to think about their favorite bird and raise their hands, and keep them raised if the bird makes them think about a specific place and the people they were with when they saw the bird. Most of the people in the room kept their hands raised.
“The fact that so many of you had their hands up, it tells us something about birds,” Hutson said. “They’re a connection to each other, they’re a connection to specific places and they really are something that can be motivating.”
Grandfather Mountain is home to more than 100 species of birds over the course of the year.
Hutson said Audubon is intent on supporting Executive Order 80, which was signed on Oct. 29, 2018, by Gov. Roy Cooper. The order says “The state of North Carolina will support the 2015 Paris Agreement goals and honor the state’s commitments to the United States Climate Alliance,” and includes a number of specific provisions.
Regan said climate change is the biggest issue facing this generation, and taking a look at the issue through birds is fascinating due to the impact on habitat, tourism and the economy in addition to natural resources.
“I learned that our bird population is much more vulnerable than I ever thought,” Regan said. “Really understanding that connection of the migratory birds, the habitat changes and the lost opportunities if the birds are migrating too early or too late, and what that impact does to the bird population.”
Regan said NCDEQ can take a step back to look at a holistic approach to climate mitigation and looking at better ways to protect natural resources through pollinators and habitat protection as well.
“The biggest thing we can do is expand our tent,” Regan said.