UN report outlines global threats to migratory species: What about Minnesota birds?

Piping plover
Piping plover populations are mainly restricted to the shores of Lake Michigan, but they have been spotted in Duluth's Park Point.
Dan Kraker | MPR News 2015

The United Nations recently came out with its first report on the state of the world’s migratory species and the findings were grim: Half of migratory species around the world are in decline and a fifth are at risk of extinction.

Olivia LeDee, regional administrator of the Midwest Climate Adaptation Center, joined MPR News host Cathy Wurzer to talk about the state of migratory birds and insects that move through Minnesota.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

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Audio transcript

CATHY WURZER: Still February, but it feels like spring is knocking on our door. And with it comes the return of birds that migrate through Minnesota every year, many of them following the Mississippi River. Some of these species are returning in smaller numbers because of threats they're facing here or somewhere else along their path. And this is a global trend. The United Nations recently came out with its first report on the state of the world's migratory species. And the findings were grim.

Half of migratory species around the world are in decline and a fifth are at risk of extinction. Joining us right now to talk about the state of migratory species that moved through Minnesota is Olivia LeDee she's the regional administrator of the Midwest Climate Adaptation Center which is based at the University of Minnesota. Olivia, welcome.

OLIVIA LEDEE: Hi. Thank you, really happy to be here.

CATHY WURZER: Well, I'm glad you could take the time, thank you so much. Just today, I was thinking to myself, I thought I saw a bird that I only see in spring. And I thought, no, it can't possibly be here, it's just too early. Have you heard of birds starting to fly back a little normal than earlier because of this weird winter?

OLIVIA LEDEE: Well, as we see earlier springs, yes, we do see some birds that are-- typically the ones that are shorter distance migrants are more likely to respond to warmer conditions. Sooner taking advantage of that weather. The challenge is, if they get here and then we get a cold snap which would be normal, and if they've started nesting earlier than they would run into problems.

CATHY WURZER: Yes. Absolutely. Have you noted or seen any bugs showing up early or trees budding, that kind of thing. Would that have an impact on bird migration?

OLIVIA LEDEE: So for some species, they are really tied. So for some birds, they're really tied to a particular insect availability or particular food resources. And one of the concerns that we're looking at in terms of climate change is the disconnect or asynchrony between those two things. So sometimes they are able to track those food resources, the insect hatches, and sometimes they're not able to read earlier in response to the insects being available earlier.

CATHY WURZER: I did not know that you started your career in climate science with a migratory bird that has been seen in Duluth a piping plover. Tell me about the bird.

OLIVIA LEDEE: Yeah, that's right. So not unlike some of these birds I came here to Minnesota from South Louisiana because of the opportunity to work in the Cuthbert Lab at University of Minnesota where they work on the Great Lakes piping plover. It's a small migratory endangered shorebird. The population is now largely confined to the shores of Lake Michigan. But there's frequent spotting of individuals or pairs in Duluth where folks get really excited.

But a lot of times when we think about animals, we think about where they are now and where they are in our backyard. But I was interested again as a Louisiana resident really natural interest in the non-breeding season. So where they spend most of their time, which is not with us in the Great Lakes. And so really looking at the Gulf of Mexico Coast is very in-depth spending quite a bit of my time for my graduate work.

CATHY WURZER: So what threats are these little birds facing?

OLIVIA LEDEE: So habitat loss and disturbance on the non-breeding grounds. So if you think about sharing the beach with thousands of tourists, our major challenges to them. And those wintering and stopover sites really are what might influencing their survival. Not necessarily whether or not their nests do really well on the breeding grounds. And so some of these places are really important for these birds and they have what we call site fidelity where they go back to the same locations every year.

And some of these are barrier islands where they are really vulnerable to hurricanes and sea level rise. So one example is the chandeleur islands which are a part of Breton National Wildlife Refuge. It's one of the oldest national wildlife refuges in the US. And you have hundreds of thousands of migratory birds including piping plovers that will use those islands. But they've lost nearly 90% of their land mass over the past 200 years because of intense weather events or hurricanes which affect them.

And then they need time to rebuild. So really concerned about especially those barrier islands and those threats to the non-breeding areas.

CATHY WURZER: I'm wondering about other migratory songbirds. Perhaps we can talk about that. Are there other species that are facing threats?

OLIVIA LEDEE: Sure. So if we think about grasslands in the Midwest which are really, really important and we think about emblematic grassland birds like Western meadowlarks, for example, they've declined dramatically over the past 50, 60 years. And our landscape is changing. These animals are having to share more land with more people. So agriculture energy development, urbanization have really reduced the amount of grassland habitat.

And we also talk about fragmentation which is breaking up. What we do have left into smaller chunks which makes it also more challenging for them to be successful. And climate change acts in concert with these changes in lands-- in land use. So for the Midwest and grassland birds, Eastern meadowlarks, or monarch butterflies, those changes in grassland use are really important.

CATHY WURZER: I'm wondering. Are there-- can there be efforts to save and to-- or to help some of these migratory species adapt to the changes they're running into or is it just simply too late?

OLIVIA LEDEE: No, certainly. That is one of the things that we focus on at the Midwest Climate Adaptation Science Center, is what's the science to support responding to challenges especially in response to climate change. So sometimes we can't do anything directly to mediate increased temperatures or changes in precipitation. But we know that we can manage the land to offset some of those changes.

So for grassland birds, what we call maintaining connectivity, so having essentially highways for birds to move between patches of land, help them to move and find better opportunities in newer habitats. We also know that the size of those patches, those pieces of land are really important. And that larger grassland patches help offset some of those negative effects of temperature and precipitation.

We also know programs like the Conservation Reserve program. It provides a way to provide high quality habitat, so for example, for monarchs, we can put milkweed in those or increase the amount of milkweed in the land between those habitat patches in the matrix which folks can do in their own backyards.

CATHY WURZER: Good. Good information there. So before you go, as people are going to notice, birds that are arriving here in the next-- well, who knows? Next weeks, few weeks anyway, are there migratory species you'll be watching for that we could see more of in Minnesota because of climate change?

OLIVIA LEDEE: We are seeing-- yes, eventual expansions of some range of species as well as earlier ones. I don't know that I have, I always like watching the juncos which are out and active. We also hear of things staying much longer, even Canada geese. But I'm going to-- I'm going to be looking out for everything. And yes, pretty soon here.

CATHY WURZER: All right. Olivia, thank you so much for your time, we appreciate it.

OLIVIA LEDEE: Thank you very much.

CATHY WURZER: Olivia LeDee is the regional administrator of the Midwest Climate Adaptation Center based at the University of Minnesota.

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