Last month’s Winter Storm Izzy brought chaos to Massachusetts, downing power lines and tree branches, spurring coastal flooding, and leaving thousands in the dark due to power outages. The storm may have been the most disorienting, however, for one small creature: an emaciated Arctic bird found by an Acton couple.
The bird was later identified as a thick-billed murre, a species that spends that spends summers nesting in the rocky coasts of the High Arctic and winters in Nova Scotia, British Columbia, and northern Europe. Needless to say, Acton is way out of its normal range.
Staff at the Tufts Wildlife Clinic nursed the bird back to health; it was released back into the wild on Feb. 2. But its plight is a reminder of the climate threats that birds face.
Wayne Petersen, director of important bird areas at Mass Audubon, said the bird was probably blown in on Izzy’s high winds. That storm hasn’t been directly attributed to climate change, but there’s abundant evidence that the climate crisis is making winter storms more common and severe.
“It stands to reason that if these of events happen more frequently, we could see this happening [to birds] more,” he said.
Local birds are at risk, too. Terns living along New England’s coasts, for instance, have been fatally injured by heavy rains and hailstorms.
Ocean warming is also taking a massive toll on local bird populations. As seas heat up, they lose oxygen and become less hospitable to plankton, which some native fish like to eat. This can pose problems for the seabirds that prey on those fish. And birds in New England are especially at risk, since the Gulf of Maine is among the fastest-warming bodies of water on Earth, Petersen said.
Warming waters are creating other changes in fish populations, too, which affects the birds that eat them. Last year, for instance, scores of butterfish — a species that is usually more common in mid-Atlantic waters, but has been showing up in the Gulf of Maine during particularly warm years — swam into the region. In the absence of herring and other North Atlantic fish, which likely travelled to cooler waters, Maine’s iconic Atlantic puffins began to feed their young the butterfish, but they’re too big for puffin chicks to swallow.
“They literally would sometimes choke to death on them,” said Petersen.
Climate change threatens local birds in other ways, too. Species that nest in marshes, like saltmarsh sparrows, are losing habitat due to sea level rise. In the forests of western Massachusetts, rising temperatures and precipitation levels are threatening the maple and beech trees that many birds rely on for shelter. Ocean acidification, which happens when the ocean absorbs greenhouse gas emissions, is reducing stocks of shellfish, which many seabirds eat.
Migratory birds are particularly vulnerable to some changes in the climate, since they must time their breeding cycles to when prey is most abundant and rising temperatures are changing those cycles. They aren’t always able to adapt to these shifts.
“There’s so much interest focused on this poor little guy for landing in someone’s backyard,” said Petersen. “But let’s not forget the bigger story.”
Matt Yan contributed to this report.