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New 'State of the Birds' report says seabirds especially vulnerable to climate change

March 16, 2010 | 11:37 am

Albatross

AUSTIN, Texas — Global climate change poses a significant threat to migratory bird populations, which are already stressed by the loss of habitat and environmental pollution, according to a report released Thursday.

U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar joined scientists and conservation organizers at an Austin news conference to release the study, "The State of the Birds: 2010 Report on Climate Change."

The report says oceanic birds, such as petrels and albatrosses, are at particular risk from a rapidly changing marine ecosystem and rising sea levels.

Birds in arid regions and forests show less vulnerability to climate change, but the report says many species struggling in arid regions now, including the endangered golden-cheeked warbler and black-capped vireo in Texas, could be further imperiled by shifting climate conditions.

"Birds are messengers that tell us what is going on in our environment," Salazar said. "For too long, in my view, we have stood idle as the climate changes and as the crisis has grown."

A 2009 report on bird populations found nearly a third of the nation's 800 bird species are endangered, threatened or in decline due to challenges such as the loss of wetlands, commercial hunting and pesticides.

Last year's "State of the Birds" report also mentioned climate change as a threat to birds. But the 2010 report focuses on that factor as a significant danger to their habitats and food supplies.

All 67 ocean bird species in U.S. waters are at medium to high vulnerability to climate change, according to the study. Seabirds tend to have low reproductive potential and often nest on islands that can be inundated by rising sea levels, changes in water chemistry and other disruptions to the marine ecosystem. Hawaiian birds are among those in greatest peril.

The report cites increased threats to bird populations from deeper and longer droughts, more intense flooding, hotter fire seasons and other weather phenomena associated with climate change.

In Texas, Republican Gov. Rick Perry and his appointees to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, have expressed skepticism about the science linking climate change and carbon emissions and are fighting federal efforts to force industrial facilities to curb emissions.

Salazar said he expected vigorous discussion about how to deal with climate change, but he told reporters there was no point in talking about whether it's happening.

"I think the debate about whether or not climate change is occurring is a debate that is over," Salazar said. "I think the scientific community is unanimous in its opinion that we are seeing climate change upon us. We would be foolhardy not to move forward and to address the impacts of climate change."

The report makes several suggestions for mitigating the negative effect on birds, including habitat restoration, the creation of new wildlife refuges, regulations to reduce bird kills in fishing operations and the reduction of greenhouse gases.

Miyoko Chu, director of communications for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, who was on the team that assembled the report, said the study was not "all doom and gloom." She said some bird populations have shown an ability to adapt to changing climate conditions and stressed that research and monitoring programs held promise for preventing further declines.

"When doctors can detect symptoms early, they can save lives," Chu said. "And when conservationists can detect problems early enough, they can prevent extinction."

-- Associated Press

Photo: A nesting pair of Laysan albatross on Midway Atoll in 1996. Credit: Los Angeles Times

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