Desert Bird Population Plummets Due To Heat Stress From Global Climate Crisis

As the climate crisis gets worse each year, the effects are being felt in a place many of us choose to ignore: The desert, which teems with wildlife despite the fact that temperatures regularly soar above 100 degrees Fahrenheit on a daily basis in the summer.

But while deserts are known for being hot and dry, the increased heat from a warming planet is having dire consequences for many of the animals who call the arid parts of the world home.

Mongabay reports that desert birds are suffering greatly as places such as the Mojave Desert get warmer:

“Some birds may die solely from overheating, but a more serious problem facing most species is how much time they must spend trying to cool down. This decreases their time spent breeding, leading to smaller population sizes.”

Barry Sinervo, an evolutionary biologist at the University of California, warns that the long-term impact of increasing desert temperatures will be fatal to many species of birds:

“(Heat-stressed birds) may survive, but ultimately the population is doomed.”

A new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences focused on the part of the Mojave located in California and Nevada, and the results are incredibly disturbing. It was led by postdoctoral researcher Eric Riddell of the University of California, Berkeley, and found that the hottest and driest sites in the Mojave — such as those around Death Valley National Park — have suffered the largest drop in their bird population:

“To understand how climbing temperatures affect birds, Riddell and his colleagues created simulations of 50 different species. These ‘virtual birds’ included each species’ size, feather color and shape, and shade-seeking behavior. The species that have declined the most matched the ones the simulation indicated would require the most extra water to stay cool on the hottest days.”

In order to cool themselves, birds pant or vibrate their throat muscles. Those actions, however, consume water. This means that smaller birds are more vulnerable to hotter temperatures because they lose water from their bodies more rapidly than larger birds do. But that knowledge was based on old data, and the recent study shows that larger birds are now seeing the greatest reduction in their ranges.

Diet also plays a role in a bird’s ability to cool himself, according to Donald Miles, a vertebrate biologist at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio. For example:

“Birds that eat grains or plants, such as mountain chickadees, drink water directly from pools and streams. If they overheat, they can easily drink more water to compensate. However, larger meat-eating birds like prairie falcons get all their water from the insects and animals they eat. When temperatures rise, they can’t easily increase their water consumption. Climate change has made these daily challenges steeper — and deadlier, the study shows.”

More disturbing is the fact that the new study proves that even on protected lands with little or no human development, animals are unable to escape the adverse effects of climate change. Researchers estimate that birds in the Mojave will require 50 percent to 78 percent more water. And yet their sources of water are dwindling.

Professor Sinervo was unequivocal in his assessment of the new study and what it means for the future:

“We’re screwed. If we don’t change, all of biodiversity begins to vanish.”

Featured Image of a Cactus Wren Via Wikipedia 

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Andrew Bradford

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