Climate Change

Many issues face birds today. One of these issues is the changing climate. Climate Change includes the gradual increase in the Earth’s overall temperature, with the changes in environmental conditions that go along with it, such as extreme weather events. Our planet’s average temperature is increasing, but not uniformly in every place. Climate Change incorporates this variation in warming and cooling in different locations. In Alberta, we have experienced drought, extreme weather, fires, and flooding. People often think about the effect this has on our society, but not on birds. This page explores how birds are impacted by our changing climate.


Why is Climate Change Happening?


Humans are accelerating climate change by cutting down vast amount of forests for wood products, the petroleum industry, and agriculture. Trees use carbon dioxide to produce sugar, cellulose, and other products they need and trees produce oxygen as their ‘waste’ product. However, the more we cut down, the fewer trees there are to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), humans have cut down 50% of the world’s original forests. So while humans increase the amount of greenhouse gas emissions being produced, the forests ability to sequester, or remove carbon dioxide, from the atmosphere is being reduced (WWF 2017).

Burning of fossil fuels

When fossil fuels are burned they release certain types of Greenhouse Gases, such as carbon dioxide and methane. These gases are appropriately named because in the atmosphere they behave like a greenhouse. When these gases are released, they reflect thermal radiation. Radiation comes through the atmosphere from the sun, but instead of bouncing off the surface of the Earth and reflecting back into space, the heat is absorbed by the atmosphere, warming the Earth. Greenhouse gases occur naturally in the atmosphere; without them the Earth would be very cold. However, since the industrial revolution in the 1800’s, humans have released more of these gases to the point that concentrations are higher now than they have been in the last 400,000 years. This kind of change comes with consequences.


Where does Carbon come from?

In Alberta, a major source of carbon dioxide derives from burning fossil fuels, including diesel, gasoline, natural gas, and propane, which when combusted create greenhouse gasses. Often this comes from vehicles, power plants, and other industry. There are also many other subtle sources of greenhouse gases as well. For example, Alberta has a lot of cattle ranching for meat and dairy, and cows release methane gas directly into the atmosphere. In addition, as the Earth gradually warms, permafrost melts, releasing methane into the atmosphere. This creates a positive feedback system, where the warming climate causes the release of more greenhouses gases, which make it warmer.


What effects does climate change have on birds?

Drought –Alberta is currently experiencing a gradual warming of average temperatures as a result of climate change. Unfortunately, warmer temperatures create more evaporation, which contributes to drought. The many wetlands found in Alberta are a great source of food and shelter for birds. Songbirds rely on insects plentiful in wetlands in the boreal forest to raise their young, waterfowl take shelter and eat vegetation from wetlands, and some raptors catch and eat fish and aquatic birds. Wetlands are shrinking in size due to climate change, and this is reducing the habitat available for these birds to live in.

Fires – In Alberta, warmer temperatures and drought often leads to a greater number of and severity of forest fires. As temperatures increase, forests lose moisture, leaving them dry and ideal fuel for fire. A longer fire season (earlier and later fires) can be expected due to the increased dry temperatures (IPCC 2014). This will reduce habitat for birds, and unfortunately as the area burned by fires increases, so does its impacts on birds.

Flooding – In North America, the welfare of grassland birds is of great concern. In the last 50 years, the number of grassland birds has declined 50% in Alberta. Flood events are likely to be more common with the changing climate, as severe weather events can cause floods (IPCC 2014). When grassland areas are flooded, ground nesters may have their nests drowned or washed away.

Storms – Alberta is already known for severe summer storms, and these are likely to increase with climate change (IPCC 2014). Intense storms have been found to cause failure in nesting success of raptors and waterfowl (Holroyd and Beaubien 1997a). It is likely that there are also impacts on small songbirds as well. Nests can be washed away by rain or flooding, or chicks can be exposed to cold temperatures and die. In addition, a spring snowfall can cause cascading effects by changing the timing and amount of water available later in the season, as well as damaging buds of plants that produce berries that birds need to survive the upcoming winter (Holroyd and Beaubien 1997a).

Mismatch – A more complicated effect of climate change is the potential mismatch of food resources and the birds need for food. Alberta has been experiencing milder winters and earlier springs as a result of climate change. Plants and insects are very temperature sensitive, and respond quickly to these changes by becoming active earlier (Holroyd and Beaubien 1997a). Birds may respond and arrive earlier at their breeding grounds, but so far, evidence suggests that they respond to daylight hours rather than temperatures, so they arrive only a few days earlier than normal compared to insects and plants (Mayor et al. 2017). This results in birds raising their chicks at a time when their food source may have already peaked in abundance, and may result in a decreased number of chicks surviving each year.

Rising sea level – Fortunately, rising sea levels are not an impact that can be seen directly in Alberta, but it can be seen indirectly. One group of birds of concern in Alberta are shorebirds that depend on beaches to find food in the exposed sand and mud. Beaches and mud flat habitat for shorebirds are already endangered by pollution and other human activity. Beaches are very popular with humans, and people often damage them or outcompete shorebirds for space on these beaches. Climate change will cause the polar ice caps to melt, raising the height of the oceans (IPCC 2014). When sea levels rise, much of this valuable habitat will be lost for shorebirds. The effect on Alberta shorebirds will be fewer shorebirds returning from their flooded wintering grounds and fewer arctic shorebirds migrating through the province.


What can I do?

Think small – Think smaller families. The number one factor influencing how much fossil fuels are emitted into the environment, how much pollution and garbage is created, and how much of an impact humans have on the environment, is how many people there are on the Earth (over 7 Billion). By choosing to have one fewer child, you can reduce the carbon equivalents you emit into the atmosphere per year by 58.6 tonnes (Wynes and Nicholas 2017).

Drive less, or not at all – Use public transit, bike, or walk. It takes fewer carbon emissions for multiple people to travel by bus than separate cars. If public transit can take you to work or school, buying a bus pass would also be much cheaper for you than the cost of driving every day. If you were to not drive at all, you could reduce your carbon footprint by 50% or 2.4 tonnes per year (Wynes and Nicholas 2017). This is one of the most effective solutions for reducing your carbon footprint, because it promotes efficient transit and high density cities. Even better than public transport, walking and bicycling are among the most effective forms of transportation for lowering carbon emissions. If you walk or bike, you avoid paying for gasoline and transit fees, and you get good exercise as well. If you can incorporate walking or biking into your daily routine, you will likely meet the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) recommendations of 30 minutes of exercise a day to be healthy (PHAC 2012) and this will have the side benefits of reducing your costs and potentially obesity.

Fly less, or not at all – Choose local vacations. The cost of one transatlantic round trip flight is 1.6 tonnes of carbon (Wynes and Nicholas 2017). Canada is a big country, and Alberta has a wide variety of environments from the Rocky Mountains to grasslands to boreal forest and parkland. Try visiting a nearby landmark you have never been to before. You will be helping the environment while getting new experiences.

Go vegetarian/vegan – Eating meat is an inefficient method of obtaining energy. If you stop eating meat entirely, you will reduce your carbon emissions by 0.8 tonnes per year (Wynes and Nicholas 2017). If you are not ready for the full switch, try reducing how much meat you eat. If every American replaced just beef with beans, and still ate other animals and animal products, they would be close to meeting their emission goals that were set in place for 2020 (Hamblin 2017). These lifestyle changes would work here in Canada too. If you reduce your meat intake, you are helping birds and the environment.

Choose local food – The carbon footprint of transporting food from where it is grown to where it is purchased is often large. Nationally, freight accounts for 9% of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions (Lof et al. 2017). That includes both food and retail items, however, it does not include the costs of transporting food outside of the country, and much of our produce is imported from half the world away. By shopping locally, you can help reduce the large carbon footprint our food industries are creating. Even better, grow your own vegetables if you have a yard or green space available.

Use solar energy – Solar energy generates electricity without burning fossil fuels. Install it in your home, or buy a small device for charging your electronics to start with. It is now possible to purchase solar panels for a home that can provide all your electricity needs and lets you sell the extra energy back to the grid. If you own a home and plan to stay there for many years, this could be profitable as well as sustainable.

Use Energy Efficient Items – You can switch to LED lights instead of conventional incandescent light bulbs. By replacing older appliances such as furnaces, freezers and refrigerators with newer, more efficient ones, you can reduce the amount of energy you are using which helps reduce carbon emissions and helps you to save some money.  .

Protect wild spaces/plant trees –By protecting areas of forest, and planting trees, you will not only be protecting habitat for birds, but be helping to reduce carbon output into the environment as well. Trees take up carbon dioxide from the air to convert it to sugar and other materials; trees then emit oxygen as their waste product. The more trees there are, the more carbon they can remove from the atmosphere and the more oxygen we have to breathe.


Please consider employing some of the choices listed above. Choices made by individuals have the potential to make rapid and sweeping changes while waiting for government policy to change or for more advanced technologies to become available. You can make a difference.



Literature cited  

Lof, J., Straatman, B., and Layzell, D. B. 2017. Meeting the Freight Transportation GHG Challenge. Canadian Energy Systems Analysis Research; Retrieved Nov 11 from

Hamblin, J. 2017. If Everyone Ate Beans Instead of Beef. The Atlantic. Retrieved on November 15 from

Holroyd, G. L., and Beaubien, E. G. 1997a. Some Possible Effects of Atmospheric Change on Wildlife. Ecosystem Effects of Atmospheric Change Meeting, March 5‑6, 1996 at Holiday Inn, Pointe Clair, Quebec.

IPCC, 2014: Climate Change 2014: Synthesis Report. Contribution of Working Groups I, II and III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Core Writing Team, R.K. Pachauri and L.A. Meyer (eds.)]. IPCC, Geneva, Switzerland, 151 pp.

Mayor, S. J., Guralnick, R. P., Tingley, M. W., Otegui, J., Withey, J. C., Elmendorf, S. C., Andrew, M. E., Leyk, S., Pearse, I. S., and Schneider, D. C. 2017. Increasing phenological asynchrony between spring green-up and arrival of migratory birds. Scientific Reports 7: 1902 DOI:10.1038/s41598-017-02045-z

Wynes, S., and Nicholas, K. A. 2017. The climate mitigation gap: education and government recommendations miss the most effective individual actions. IOP Science 12(7) Retrieved on November 15 from

Unknown Author. Updated 2012. Physical Activity Tips for Adults (18-64 years). Public Health Agency of Canada. Retrieved January 8, 2018 from  

Unknown Author. 2017. Forest Habitat. World Wildlife Fund. Retrieved November 15 from