Climate Change: Birds May Lose Half Their Species

Elaine Radford

Climate change could wipe out half the bird species, according to a chilling new assessment of the effect of global warming on life. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) -- the same organization that maintains the Red List of Threatened Species -- performed the study.

According to a report in New Scientist last week, the IUCN now believes that the Red List is too conservative because it hadn't taken into account the effects of climate change. IUCN's Wendy Foden explained:

"When the Red List was invented, it was long before anyone worried about climate change."

Birds face far more challenges than their current IUCN status suggests. Between a quarter to a half of all of the approximately 10,000 species may be at risk of extinction if climate change is allowed to proceed unchecked.

Foden stressed that a great many of the bird species at risk aren't even currently classified as threatened. She said that 17 to 41 percent of the vulnerable birds are currently listed as safe species on the so-called Red List.

Frankly, I've felt that the Red List was too conservative for a long time. Many species are listed as threatened or even "species of least concern" that seem to be at genuine risk of extinction.

A notorious example would be the Cape Parrot, Poicephalus robustus, an endemic South African species on the verge of extinction. Steve Boyes in the field has consistently reported that less than 1,000 of the birds remain in the wild, and in some years 100 percent of tested Cape Parrots are infected with a deadly virus.

Yet, as of today's writing, the Cape Parrot is still lumped in with another species on the IUCN list -- and therefore ranked as a "species of least concern."

The new climate change assessments were published Wednesday in open access science journal PLOS One and actually cover much more than birds.

Inspired by a study that predicted up to 37 percent of all species could be "committed to extinction" by 2050, Foden and colleagues found that birds, corals, and amphibians are at the highest risk. Between 22 to 44 percent of amphibians and 15 to 32 percent of the corals may be imperiled by climate change.

However, the 9,856 bird species recognized by IUCN have the biggest problem, with between 2,323 and 4,890 birds being challenged by climate change.

[blue-throated macaw photo by Dave-F via Flickr and Creative Commons] [Kirtland's Warbler photo by Joel Trick for the US Fish and Wildlife Service]