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Bird communities in protected areas are rapidly changing

Researchers at the University of Helsinki have recently discovered unexpected changes in bird communities within protected areas due to climate change. The study was focused on shifts in Canadian bird communities from 1997 to 2019.

“An increasing number of species are under threat from climate change and many populations are at risk of decreasing in abundance. Consequently, some species have become endangered,” wrote the study authors.

“Therefore, predicting how the range, distribution, abundance, and phenology of species may change in response to a warming climate is a timely and important step in planning actions to mitigate the negative impacts of climate warming.”

The experts found that bird communities in protected and unprotected areas are becoming increasingly similar, with both witnessing a rise in southern species and a decline in northern species. 

One significant observation was that during the breeding season, communities within protected spaces began to mimic those in unprotected spaces in terms of their climate requirements.

Protected areas are not immune to climate change 

“Protected areas are more effective in helping cold-dwelling northern bird species, but it was surprising to discover that southern species increased faster in abundance inside than outside protected areas,” explained Leena Hintsanen of the Finnish Museum of Natural History.

This finding highlights that the impact of climate change in protected areas is greater than previously anticipated.

For example, while protected areas continue to be crucial for the conservation of northern species like the Lapland longspur, these spaces are not immune to the alterations brought about by climate change. 

Climate requirements 

The 22-year study documented that bird communities within protected areas are increasingly reflecting those in non-protected areas due to their similar climate requirements.

Hintsanen explained that the trend poses significant challenges for conservation efforts aimed at preserving the vitality of various bird species in the face of global warming.

Communities that have comparable climate requirements tend to have a balanced proportion of species that prefer cold and warm climates, respectively.

Southern species moving north

Furthermore, the researchers noted that the observed changes in bird communities in both protected and unprotected areas are primarily driven by southern species, such as the grass wren and the northern cardinal. 

These species are expanding their habitats further north as the climate warms, seeking environments that are conducive to their survival.

“This indicates that protected areas, in particular, are highly significant for the northern spread of southern species. However, protected areas cannot entirely guarantee protection for declining northern species,” explained Hintsanen.

Rapid changes

Past studies conducted in various countries, including Finland, have shown that protected areas generally slow down alterations in species communities. 

However, the recent findings highlight the overwhelming influence of climate change on these areas, leading to faster-than-expected changes in bird communities. 

According to Hintsanen, a complex network of factors might be contributing to the rapid changes observed in protected areas.

Long-term data 

Long-term data from bird surveys conducted since the 1960s in North America have been crucial for this kind of research, providing valuable insights into the effects of climate change on bird populations. 

The digitalization of decades-old data has further empowered researchers to gain a better understanding of these impacts, shedding light on the subtle yet significant changes unfolding in the avian world due to the changing climate.

The study is published in the journal Conservation Biology.

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