One Reason Birders Should Be Blue (But Not Too Blue) About Climate Change

Written by David Connell on . Posted in Learn

This post was Adapted from an article by Scott Morrison, director of conservation science at The Nature Conservancy – California that was originally pubished on The Nature Conservancy’s blog Cool Green Science.

The Island Scrub-Jay lives only on Santa Cruz Island, 20 miles off the coast of Southern California. It is a beautiful and unusual-looking blue, white, and black creature and has been successfully protected from the endangered list by The Nature Conservancy and the National Park Service.

Known as the only island-endemic landbird in all of North America, projections about global warming have West Nile virus, transmitted by warm-weather-loving mosquitos, hitting the island in the near future, which means big problems for this jay. West Nile tends to be lethal for birds in the jay family and mosquito-transmitted diseases like West Nile are likely to become more prevalent with global warming.

With Southern California expected to be warmer and drier in the future. Among other things, that could exacerbate fire risk. The mainland is already renowned for catastrophic wind-driven wildfires. The 2003 “Cedar Fire” near San Diego, for example, burned an area the size of Santa Cruz Island within just the first 10 hours.

So it’s quite conceivable that an accidental spark on the island on the wrong day could burn all the habitat of the island scrub-jay. Which brings me back to the problem with the island scrub-jay: Its risk of extinction in this era of rapid climate change is actually uncomfortably high.

Fortunately, though, that narrow stretch of water has bought us a little time — time to be proactive.

So now The Nature Conservancy is developing a “biosecurity plan” for the island, to help reduce the likelihood that new invasive species will get out to the island, and to reduce the risk of wildfire.

Our Conservancy science experts are working with an exceptional group of collaborators – including researchers from the University of California Wildlife Health Center, the Smithsonian Institution, and Colorado State University – to implement a vaccination program designed to increase the likelihood that when West Nile virus gets out there, more of the jays will survive.

In other words, we’re applying the principles of conservation science, anticipating the challenges ahead, and working proactively to reduce the risk of extinction of this species. And in that regard, the conservation problems of the island scrub-jay aren’t so unusual, after all. The business of conservation in this era of global change is figuring out what species are threatened by the changing climate, and figuring out what we can do — today — to help them make it to the future.

Post by: Paul Mackie, associate director of strategic communications for climate change, The Nature Conservancy

(Image: Island scrub-jay. Image credit: Cameron Ghalambor)

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Planet Change is a Nature Conservancy blog site designed to share stories about actions the Conservancy and others around the world are taking to fight carbon pollution and the impacts of climate change, and to help people feel the connections between climate change and their daily lives and understand actions they can take.

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