Melissa Harris-Perry: Welcome back to The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry. Listen.
Melissa Harris-Perry: That's the sound of a redwing. Chances are that even if you're an avid birder here in the US, you may never have heard a live performance of this bird song, because it's nearly impossible to see or hear a redwing in the US. That's not because the redwing is particularly rare. I mean, it's actually pretty common to spot in the UK and in Scandinavian countries, where it migrates for the winter. It is notable that a birder recently spotted one outside the window of his parents' home in Maine.
Now, for bird watchers, a sighting like this is super exciting, but for researchers, the enthusiasm is dampened by the potentially ominous warning a little redwing might be carrying with it so many miles from home.
Amanda Rodewald: My name is Amanda Rodewald. I'm the Garvin Professor and the Senior Director of the Center for Avian Population Studies at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
Melissa Harris-Perry: The lab developed an app called eBird.
Amanda Rodewald: Almost 1 million observers around the world submit their observations of birds to eBird. Now, we have over 1.2 billion observations and it's the fastest accumulating database with biodiversity information.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Crowdsourcing bird sightings, both common and rare, can provide valuable data and important clues about how our planet is being affected by climate change.
Amanda Rodewald: It's citizen science at its best. If we imagined what's happening in the world, all the changes that are underway, and what we need to learn about those changes, we're not going to have enough information if we rely on professionals to collect it. I mean, it's just not going to happen. By engaging just regular people around the world, we can fill those information needs.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Obviously, coal miners long used canaries as a kind of early warning system that something was wrong, and that it could be quite dangerous for the people who were coal miners. What kind of climate change canaries in the coal mine have you been seeing through eBird?
Amanda Rodewald: Yes, and you're spot on because birds are excellent indicators of environmental conditions, so they can be really early warning signals for us of environmental change. This is because birds are almost everywhere, they're sensitive to environmental conditions, and so when conditions change, then we're able to detect changes in the number and distributions of birds.
You can find many, many publications that are using eBird data to identify, for example, some species that we think are most likely to be affected by climate change. We see changes already in some ranges of species, so where that species occurs geographically, or even elevationally, up and down mountain slopes. We see changes in the distribution of populations, changes in the timing of migration, and other movements of birds.
These are all things that we're starting to pick up now because of eBird data, and even more than understanding what's already happened, we're able to use that knowledge to make strong predictions about future responses. Those might be future responses to drought, to temperature changes, to shifts in the distribution of resources that we rely upon, as well.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Why is it that the sight of a rare bird somewhere might be really exciting for birders, but may be troubling sign relative to climate change?
Amanda Rodewald: I guess one thing to keep in mind is that birds can turn up in odd places and they've been doing that for a long time. When we hear about rare birds showing up, we also have to remember that our ability to detect those birds and to find out about those observations is also related to how many people are out there, watching them and recording them. That's increasing over time.
That said, we know that some changes in climate, for example, storms, they're becoming stronger, more frequent, and so it's more likely that we might be finding birds going off course. As a whole, we usually rely on these kind of bigger data sets where we can make really strong inferences about the kind of change we're seeing, rather than some of these rare bird observations specifically.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I get your point, one bird is a story, but a flock is really a story.
Amanda Rodewald: And I guess the regularity. If we start to detect these birds, unusual observations, or rare birds that start turning up regularly in new habitats, or in new geographies, that regularity starts becoming a stronger signal that tells us that something about the resources that that bird relies upon are likely changing.
Melissa Harris-Perry: On that point, I understand that in the 50 years or so, there's been a precipitous decline in bird populations in North America. Is that something we ought to be paying attention to?
Amanda Rodewald: Absolutely. I mean, at the most basic level, if the environment is not healthy enough for birds, well, then it's certainly not going to be healthy enough for people either. We know that globally. WHO has estimated about a quarter of human deaths in the world are due to environments that aren't healthy. With birds, yes, again, that's a signal. We see almost a third of our breeding bird populations lost. That's telling us something important about the habitats that we're also trying to live in.
I think looking forward, if we fail to act, we're certainly going to continue to see some devastating declines for many species and possibly some extinctions. Again, those declines in birds, we're also going to be experiencing that declining habitat as well. I do have hope though. If we look back at our history, we can see that when we choose to act, when we decide to conserve species, we can turn things around and recover them.
The second reason for the hope I have for birds, and for us is, again, that what birds need is really what we need too. If we look at all these challenges we're facing from climate change, droughts, fires, poverty, food insecurity, many of these root causes really lie in environmental degradation and the loss of natural ecosystems. We can go a long way toward conserving birds simply by taking steps to make the world a better place for human health, well-being, and equity.
As long as people are motivated to act, even in our own self-interest, well, then I think that there is reason to hope that those choices are also kind of benefit birds and many of the other species that we share the planet with.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Amanda Rodewald is Professor and Senior Director for the Center of Avian Population Studies at Cornell University. Thank you so much for your time today.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.