Guest Commentary

Climate change means the last call of Missouri songbirds

The Acadian flycatcher
The Acadian flycatcher MDC Staff, courtesy Missouri Department of Conservation

What “nature” means to us is inevitably tied to the form it takes around us. For early seafarers, dark shapes in the water might have been dangerous, mythical sea monsters. For early settlers, the vast and wild land offered the bounty of harvest but also fierce elements and unknown hazards. For most Missourians today, nature is peace and adventure, a recharging dose of majestic beauty in an otherwise hurried and anxious world.

Maybe it’s time to consider how that could change.

Climate change has now become a ubiquitous presence around us. Every day, we see more evidence that the natural world is feeling the effects of rising global temperatures and climate variability. Bark beetles are decimating forests. Glaciers are melting and many animals already endangered or threatened by other factors face a dire prognosis.

Worse, there is emerging evidence that even the most abundant species could be devastated if the climate continues to warm on its current course.

With my colleagues at the University of Missouri and the U.S. Forest Service’s Northern Research Station, I recently published a study showing that if climate change is not slowed or reversed, a common songbird in the Midwest — the Acadian flycatcher — could approach extinction in this region within this century. The study relies on over 20 years of data collected in the 96-million-acre Central Hardwoods region of the U.S.

Nature is a complex balance of species and environmental factors that constantly interact with and influence each other. Any change to the environment, such as a warming climate, can shift the balance with serious consequences. In this case, higher temperatures would endanger the ability of female flycatchers to breed successfully, leading to a steep drop in their population.

While losing unique treasures like polar bears or koalas would be an undeniable tragedy, there is a distance to the plight of those animals — a sense that the effects of climate change are most pronounced “somewhere else.” Most of us have seen the images of polar bears stranded on slivers of ice, but far fewer have seen a polar bear up close in its natural habitat.

If even the most common species are facing extinction, however, the implications hit closer to home.

The flycatcher may not be the best-known face of climate change, or even the most ecologically significant, but what it symbolizes is profound. Perhaps more than ever before, the world we enjoy — the world our children and grandchildren are growing up in — cannot be taken for granted. Birds, sugar maples and even monarch butterflies are daily realities, and they are all threatened by rising temperatures. Losing them would mean living in a fundamentally altered world, a world that seems almost alien.

More frequent and severe wildfires, more severe weather and Midwestern forests missing the familiar “peet-sah” song of the flycatcher invoke chaos more than peace.

No one, regardless of political affiliation or philosophical bent, wants that. But here’s the thing: It’s avoidable.

For ourselves and our children, the natural world is not an inheritance but a trust, an asset we have the responsibility to preserve for future generations. The interconnectedness of life on this planet is not merely a piece of trivia. It is a necessary part of understanding what is happening and how to fix it, and it is a reminder that all environmental issues, no matter how unwieldy, have root causes.

For instance, my study found that the Acadian flycatcher would experience severe population loss even with adequate habitat. Climate change, after all, is the root cause. And while limiting habitat loss is important, correcting that root cause is the only way to truly remove this threat to the flycatcher and scores of other animals and plants around the world.

Working together, we can slow or reverse the course of climate change. In doing so, we can ensure future generations enjoy the same beauty and majesty we enjoy today.

Thomas Bonnot is an assistant research professor in MU's School of Natural Resources.