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Sunday, June 30, 2013

More vultures, fewer swallows – blame climate change, report says

NASHUA – The vultures are coming, but the swallows are fading, and the culprit is probably no surprise: a warming world because of greenhouse gases.

“Black vultures; that’s probably the most likely species to show up in the Merrimack (River) Valley. They’re just getting here, and will probably be common within 30 years,” said Pam Hunt, senior scientist at New Hampshire Audubon. ...

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NASHUA – The vultures are coming, but the swallows are fading, and the culprit is probably no surprise: a warming world because of greenhouse gases.

“Black vultures; that’s probably the most likely species to show up in the Merrimack (River) Valley. They’re just getting here, and will probably be common within 30 years,” said Pam Hunt, senior scientist at New Hampshire Audubon.

These vultures were once rare north of New Jersey because of cold winters, but are now present in much of the Connecticut River Valley.

Hunt was one of three scientists who spoke during a telephone press conference Monday coinciding with the release of “Shifting Skies: Migratory Birds in a Warming World” by the National Wildlife Federation.

The report described how climate change is harming birds that migrate from one location to another during the year.

The Wildlife Federation used the report to repeat calls it has made frequently in recent years for more action to tackle the problem, including more regulations on greenhouse gas emissions and more support for energy efficiency and “green energy” technologies, notably offshore wind farms.

Climate change harms bird species either by shrinking their habitat – as is happening with shore birds as oceans rise and mountain-breeding birds as warm temperatures move upslope – or by altering the food chain via so-called “migration mismatch.”

The mismatch occurs when a temporary food supply shifts away from the migratory cycle of birds – notably, when the peak moment of insect abundance no longer happens when chicks are hatched and need the most food.

Jeff Wells, senior scientist at the Boreal Songbird Initiative, compared it to a family that always goes to their local restaurant at 7 p.m., when the buffet is first laid out.

“If the kitchen decided to shift the time to 6 p.m. and we never got the message, and we arrived at 7, all the food is long gone,” he said.

Hunt pointed to insect-eating migratory species.

“Swallows are declining precipitously across the Northeast – might be because of climate-change migration mismatch that is affecting many insectivores … (such as) purple martins,” she said.

A shifting of fish species caused by the warming ocean is also harming coastal birds such as the puffin, whose breeding rates in Maine have fallen because their preferred fish have moved away.

Hector Galbraith, a scientist with the National Wildlife Federation, said during the conference call that although more species are moving north, we shouldn’t count on them to replace species that are lost.

“Doesn’t it all wash out in the end?” he asked rhetorically. “No, because most of the species spreading from the South are generalists – they survive in a wide variety of habitats. … But the species that we’re losing are specialist species that live in specific areas like boreal bogs and boreal forests.

“So it’s not the case that the birds coming up from the South are simply replacing the birds contracting to the North. Basically, their niche is being evacuated, and it’s not being filled by anything else. As far as I’m concerned, it’s a net loss.”

David Brooks can be reached at 594-6531 or dbrooks@nashuatelegraph.com. Also, follow Brooks on Twitter (@GraniteGeek).