Audubon Study Finds Warming Climate May Be Inhospitable to Alabama State Bird

A male northern flicker, also known as a yellowhammer, Alabama’s state bird. (Source: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service)

This is the first in a series of four stories about how changing weather patterns are and will affect the Black Belt.

Let us travel to the West Alabama Black Belt and consider our state bird.

We like to call it the yellowhammer. It is part of the “Rammer Jammer” song that University of Alabama fans sing after a Tide victory.

This bird’s more formal name is the Northern Flicker, and like all woodpeckers we see here, it is a striking combination of colors. The male is brown, with a bunch of dots on its underbelly, a black “whisker” extending from the base of its bill, a black bib just below its neck, a white rump, yellow shafts on its tail and flight feathers, and a red streak looping around the back of its neck.

These days, you can spot the yellowhammer year ‘round in The Heart of Dixie. But not long from now, it could be too hot for the official state bird to live here in the summertime, especially in areas such as the Black Belt, known for the intensity of the heat in July, August and September.

That’s one of the findings reported in Survival By Degrees, a recently released Aububon Society study on the impact of warming global temperatures on various species of birds.

“It’s hard to imagine our state bird being just a winter bird,” said Alabama Audubon Executive Director Ansel Payne.

Summer Without State Bird 

But summers without the state bird – the prime season in which the yellowhammer nests and raises offspring – is what the Audubon study states is a likely scenario if the average world temperature goes up by 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit, as projected by climate-change scientists. They say that rise could become a reality in a matter of years if global carbon emissions are not abated, and a recent United Nations report stated that not nearly enough is being done now to avoid that.

Overall, the Audubon study examines 604 North American bird species and concludes that if current temperature and other trends continue, two-thirds of the studied birds “are at risk of extinction from climate change.”

In Alabama, the study notes that 16 birds we now see in all or parts of the state — red-headed woodpeckers, brown thrashers and towhees among them — would lose much or all of their summer range here, or see it significantly degraded, if the average world temperature rises by 5.4 degrees F. The Audubon study states that if nothing is done, a 5.4 degree increase could happen as soon as 2080.

A female eastern towhee. (Source: Tom Gordon)

Survival By Degrees follows on the heels of another piece of research, published in Science magazine, that reports the wild bird population in North America has declined by nearly a third since 1970. That represents a net loss of nearly 3 billion birds from most “biomes,” or naturally occurring communities, and most of the losses affect sparrows, warblers, blackbirds and other birds that historically have been common in Alabama.

Simply put, hotter summer temperatures can mean the loss of habitat for some birds. For others, the heat may prove to be simply too much for them to stay in places they frequented when temperatures were milder. An average global temperature increase of 5.4 degrees F is likely to mean an even greater rise in summer temperatures in sections already known for their hot summers, such as the Alabama Black Belt.

“Birds, like most species, are highly adapted to particular vegetation and habitat types,” an Audubon fact sheet states. “To compensate for the warmer temperatures, the ranges of these habitats may move closer to the poles or higher elevations. Habitat types that cannot colonize new areas may rapidly decline or cease to exist. New pests, invasive species and diseases will create additional risks.”

The Audubon study lists 78 species – including ruby-throated hummingbirds, red-tailed hawks, tufted titmice, and blue jays – whose summer range in Alabama and elsewhere would change little, and in some instances increase, if the worldwide average temperature rises by 5.4 degrees F.

EPA: Drier, More Downpours

The level of heat, however, is not the only factor that determines the fate of birds, scientists say. Urbanization, more intense rainfall, expansion of land for farming, false springs (which cause plants to bloom early) and droughts are among the other factors that can do harm. For the blue jay, for example, spring heat waves can harm their fledglings, and urban sprawl can destroy their habitat.

In 2016, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued a study stating that Alabama’s soils have become drier, annual rainfall has increased in most of the state, and more rain arrives in heavy downpours. The study adds that climate change “is likely” to increase damages from tropical storms, reduce crop yields, harm livestock and increase the number of unpleasantly hot days.

And even if the amount of Alabama’s spring rainfall increases over the next decades, a corresponding increase in the number of hot and dry days will mean more evaporation and “the total amount of water running into rivers or recharging ground water is likely to decline 2.5 to 5 percent,” the EPA paper states.

Those developments may seem a long way off right now, so to get a sense of the change that already has affected some birds and what could happen to others if the worst warming scenarios cited by Audubon take effect, let’s head to the western Black Belt, specifically Hale County.

Hale has about 15,000 residents, a majority of them black, and 25% of those residents live below the poverty level. With its western border set by the Black Warrior River, the county is largely rural, with hilly, forested areas in the north and generally flat, sometimes gently rolling stretches of farmland in the south.

The richness of the region’s bird life is one prospect for alleviating its poverty. Birding has become part of a promising ecotourism industry. The Alabama Black Belt Birding Trail is part of an effort to develop that ecotourism industry in the region. Alabama Audubon identified sites to be promoted in the Black Belt and last year led a chartered bus filled with birders for a day of activities centered on a 200-acre Hale County farm owned by Cornelius Joe.

Like other Black Belt counties, Hale’s dark rich soil once made it a major cotton producer. Now, however, it is one of the state’s leading producers of catfish. The county seat of Greensboro has a water tower with a sign that calls it Alabama’s catfish capital, and if you head south of town along Alabama 25, you will pass stretches of land that are pockmarked with catfish ponds.

As veteran Birmingham birder Paul Franklin has written, the ponds provide “a vast amount of perfect habitat for some very interesting birds.” Among them are red-winged blackbirds, great blue herons, great egrets and belted kingfishers, all of which, Franklin notes, “are present all year.” During the spring and summer, the ponds also attract flocks of wading wood storks. In recent years, a raptor known as the swallow-tailed kite has become more noticeable.

A red-headed Woodpecker (Source: Tom Gordon)

Hale also has a lot of the same year-round feathered residents generally seen in Birmingham and elsewhere around the state — birds such as the red-headed woodpecker, the brown thrasher, the eastern towhee, the field sparrow and, of course, the northern flicker.

If the average global temperature rises by about 2.7 degrees F, the flicker would lose 13% of its current summer range, which now consists of the continental U.S., Canada, Alaska and Mexico. But it would regain about half of that loss elsewhere, primarily in northern Canada and Alaska, and thus end up with a range loss of about 6%. In Alabama, the flicker would lose about two-thirds of its current summer range — including all of Hale County — and much of its range in the rest of the state would decline in quality. If the global temperatures go up by 5.4 degrees F, however, seeing a flicker during the summer anywhere in Alabama would be a rarity.

“Nesting would cease to exist,” Ansel Payne said.

Overall, according to Audubon, three other species of birds whose range includes Hale County — the fish crow, the brown-headed nuthatch and the yellow-throated warbler — would most likely be absent from the summers there if the global average goes up by 2.7 degrees F. If that average temperature doubles, however, the number of species absent would jump to 11. Among them would be the already mentioned red-headed woodpecker, the brown thrasher, the eastern towhee and the field sparrow.

Cornelius Joe is a Hale County farmer who raises cattle and is interested in setting up bird and nature tours. (Source: Tom Gordon)

Cornelius Joe

Birds need certain conditions to survive and thrive, and so do farms such as Cornelius Joe’s. The retired agricultural science teacher raises Black Angus cattle. But he and his son Christopher also want to use the farm site for bird and nature tours and even as a teaching site for aspiring farmers.

To be successful, Joe said, a farmer needs good soil and water, “and the various seasons are very important.” But lately, Joe said, the seasons don’t seem as well defined. Winters tend to be milder, springs are shorter, and summer’s “been jumping back a little further,” he said.

Maybe that jumping back has something to do with the presence of a bird he has not seen around the farm until the past few years — the scissor-tailed flycatcher.

“You have to adjust to it,” Joe said. “It’s a sign of the times.”

More stories in the series

Sunday: In West Alabama, Life Is Hard. Warmer Weather Forecasts Worse Problems

Tuesday: Wood Pellet Plants in Job-Hungry Southern Towns Prompt Environmentalists’ Warnings

Wednesday: Cattle, Catfish, and Cover Crops. Alabama Farms Play Role in Slowing Climate Change