Inspiring Action on Climate Change and Protecting America's Birds

04/23/2015 09:33 am ET | Updated Jun 21, 2015
Helena Reynolds/Audubon Photography Awards

What can I do? That's the question Audubon hears most frequently when people learn that there may be no Baltimore Orioles in Baltimore or Common Loons nesting in our northern states by the end of the century.

In a study based on decades of data, our scientists found that if climate change continues on its current trajectory, 314 U.S. and Canadian bird species -- more than half of the 588 species studied -- could lose 50 percent or more of their current ranges by the year 2080. Many could lose so much ground that, without urgent action, they could face extinction.

Our study is a road map for action, from simple steps anyone can take in their own backyard to speaking up about the future boundaries of national parks and collective efforts to address climate change.

So, when people ask me, "What can I do?" I tell them, here's what's working:

Young people are powerful agents of personal and collective change

Our kids get it. Birds don't have a political party. This is not a Republican or a Democratic issue. It's a bird issue. And young people know it's their issue.

Young people were the messengers that led the anti-litter campaigns of the '70s and the recycling efforts of the '80s -- all of which are part of mainstream culture today -- and they did that without regard for political affiliation.

Audubon is engaging young people across America: Last week, teenagers lobbied state legislators for climate solutions in Washington. Through an Audubon program, middle school students are becoming community advocates in inner-city Baltimore neighborhoods. And in Madison, Wisconsin, students of all ages are training to become citizen scientists.

Citizen science is making climate change a more personal -- and less political -- issue

When people see change in their own communities, they get it. And people who watch birds are seeing changes. Birds are leaving later and coming back earlier, or not at all. New birds are showing up in places that they didn't used to live. And by recording all those observations, people are doing two things: They're recognizing changes in their communities, and they're contributing the information that's needed to make a difference.

New tools, including apps, smartphones, and map-based technologies, are making it easier than ever for anyone to be a citizen scientist.

For instance, our Hummingbirds at Home project engages thousands of participants across the United States to submit sightings of these tiny gems of the bird world along with their nectar-feeding preferences. This collective data will help scientists better understand how hummingbirds are responding to climate change and how we can help them adjust to a warming world, where their migration schedules are increasingly out of sync with the blooming flowers on which they depend.

From Mississippi to Denver to the Pacific Coast, I haven't met anyone who doesn't love hummingbirds.

People can make a difference in their own backyards

The stronger that bird populations are today, the better their chances for surviving and adapting to threats posed by global warming. That's why each and every personal action taken on behalf of birds matters. Imagine if every home, condo or apartment on your block made room for bird-friendly native plants or for more hummingbird feeders. Put all of those together and you know what that's called? A sanctuary. Right there in your neighborhood.

Here's another example. In North Carolina, we're partnering with community groups to install 10,000 nest boxes for brown-headed nuthatches, lively little backyard birds with a call that sounds like a rubber-duck squeaky toy. Similar birdhouse projects have helped bring back the Eastern bluebird, and conservationists are hoping the nesting-box campaign will give nuthatches the help they need to survive deforestation and urbanization, as well as the grave threats this bird faces from climate change.

New tools are assisting conservationists, urban planners, and natural-resource managers

Audubon's birds and climate study provides conservationists and policy makers new analytical tools to identify the places that birds need now and will need in the future so that they can thrive. Conservation groups, state agencies, natural-resource managers, and other partners are using the detailed maps and science from the study to make long-range conservation plans.

Talking about your #ClimateThing matters

We could quote reams of science about the ecological importance of birds.

But birds also matter because people take them personally. Whether it's the melody of a Northern cardinal on a soft spring morning or the faraway honking of migrating geese on a crisp fall evening, birds evoke memories.

Audubon members want to make sure there are plenty of birds around so our kids and their kids can make those memories, too. For us, birds are a #ClimateThing. They make climate change personal, and they inspire us to act. That is working.

Whether your #ClimateThing is birds, clean water, or your kids, join the conversation on social media, and then take action. There is something everyone can do. The important thing is to get started.

David Yarnold is President and CEO of National Audubon Society.

This post is part of a Huffington Post What's Working series on the environment. The series is putting a spotlight on initiatives and solutions that are actually making a difference -- whether in the battle against climate change, or tackling pollution or other environmental challenges. To see all the posts in the series, read here.