Partnership JournalismMarch 13, 2023

The View from Above: Climate Change Poses Threats to Nebraska’s Birds — And People

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Sandhill Cranes in flight at sunrise along the Platte River, Kearney, Nebraska | Diana Robinson/Flickr

by Chris Bowling, The Reader and  Elizabeth Miller, Climate Central

This story was produced through a collaboration with The Reader in Omaha.

LINCOLN — The back office was cramped and drafty. Bags of bird feed reached toward the ceiling as employees for Wild Bird Habitat Store wheeled shipments through an open garage door, their breath fogging in the February air.

A songbird’s chirps filled the room.

“Oh, that’s mine,” said Dave Titterington, the store’s owner as he silenced his chickadee ringtone.

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Dave Titterington stands in his shop, Wild Habitat Bird Store, in Lincoln. Photo by Chris Bowling.

The 72-year-old has run Lincoln’s go-to shop for bird seed, bird houses and everything bird related since 1993. He said his staff of about 10 employees move between 14,000 and 18,000 pounds of feed a week.

But feed and birdhouses are just the hooks.

Titterington speaks to Cub Scouts and Rotary clubs, hosts events with notable authors and documentarians and serves on local and statewide boards. What keeps his customers coming back is the awareness he helps foster about people’s connectedness with birds — the ones they hunt or watch through binoculars, the ones that boost their agricultural economy and the ones facing big threats.

“My whole theory was if I can get people interested in birds in their backyard … it generates an interest for other bird species and builds a public consensus when issues like climate change come up,” Titterington said.

Nebraska’s unique ecology of arid prairie, lush grasslands and vast waterways makes it perfect for sandhill cranes, greater prairie chickens and western meadowlark. All told, 467 bird species live in, stop by or migrate through the state, according to the Nebraska Ornithologists’ Union.

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But climate change and habitat loss have led to ranges shifting and bird populations declining. Since 1970 North America has lost 30% of its birds — about 3 billion in total, according to a multi-institution study published in 2019. Birders like Titterington notice the drop in the birds arriving in his backyard, and he and others worry for their fate. The warming climate is more frequently producing weather conditions unsuitable for iconic native species.

“People need to really pay attention because birds are the canary in the coal mine,” Titterington said. “They’re the ones telling us that we’ve got a lot of problems with the environment … If we lose birds, we might mirror them.”

A Constant Onslaught of Changes

Every year, hunters from nearly every state in the country flock to Nebraska with rifles and bird dogs. The object of their pursuit is a more-than-foot-long bird that cackles, struts and dances in the prairies of Nebraska’s Sandhills. Those that chase the plump sharp-tailed grouse help support a $4 billion, 24,000-job industry of hunting, fishing and wildlife viewing in Nebraska.

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The region is the southernmost edge of the grouse’s habitat, as well as others like the northern shrike and the white-winged crossbill, and even if the most ambitious goals of the 2015 Paris climate agreement are achieved, Audubon Society scientists have projected that much of the sharp-tailed grouse’s habitat could be lost from Nebraska. The more grasslands are lost to development and farmland, and the more fossil fuel and other pollution that gets released during the coming decades, the smaller their range is expected to be here.

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Stephen Brenner. Photo courtesy of the Audubon Society.

“Humans come in, modify the landscape, and you’re poking away at the resiliency of the landscape,” said Stephen Brenner, an avian ecologist with Nebraska Audubon. “Birds are not as able to withstand this constant onslaught of changes.”

As native species evacuate the state, some newcomers are expected to take their places. The American woodcock, for example, a northeastern bird that’s becoming difficult to find in the eastern U.S. is starting to show up in Nebraska.

“We have a lot of species at the edge of their range, the edge of what habitats they can use and not use,” Brenner said.

The threat is faced by some of Nebraska’s most iconic birds. Every year, 400,000 to 600,000 sandhill cranes with slender necks and cherry red faces stop at the Platte River on their cross-continental migration.

In 2017, nearly 50,000 people, the vast majority visiting from other states, watched the cranes take flight against a multi-colored Nebraska sunrise and generated $14 million in tourism funds, according to a University of Nebraska at Kearney study.

But climate change is impacting them, too. Already cranes are arriving a day earlier per year. If temperatures continue to rise, the places they choose to stop over in Nebraska could become less plentiful, increasing the risk of disease spreading among dense pockets of cranes, according to a multi-institutional 2020 study.

“Birds tell us so easily, ‘Look, this is happening. Here’s what’s already happened. Here’s where it’s at now, and here’s where it’s going,’” said Jason “The Bird Nerd” St. Sauver, education director at Spring Creek Prairie Audubon Center in Denton, Nebraska. “It’s really clear.”

Making Progress, But Not Fast Enough

St. Sauver grew up listening to bird calls in South Dakota’s prairies. He now teaches kids and adults about our avian co-inhabitants. In his off-time he’s birdwatched in all but seven of Nebraska’s 93 counties.

He can’t imagine a life without them. And neither, he’s guessing, can fellow Nebraskans.

“If [people] got up in the morning and they didn’t hear birdsong, they would call us immediately,” St. Sauver said.

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Jason St. Sauver. Photo courtesy of the Audubon Society.

One of the best things people can do to support birds is cultivate native plants. These plants, available at stores like Mulhall’s in Omaha and Campbell’s in Lincoln, grow the right kind of food or attract the insects that birds eat. In turn, the birds help insects fertilize and pollinate plants, control pests and perform a number of other services that keep our environment in balance.

“You’d be amazed at the kind of impact you can have even in your own yard,” Brenner said.

Many cities, such as Lincoln, Minneapolis and Kansas City, are prioritizing native plants for public spaces, which help birds as well as require less water, improve air quality and reduce erosion. Often these initiatives are part of wider climate action plans, which Kristal Stoner, executive director of Audubon Great Plains, which oversees Audubon societies in Nebraska, South Dakota and North Dakota, would like to see Nebraska adopt.

To date, 33 states and 252 cities have such a plan to respond to climate change, according to the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions and the Zero Energy Project, respectively. While it’s not a new concept — Iowa has had a climate action plan since 2008 — Nebraska hasn’t made much progress. Currently Lincoln is the only city in Nebraska with a plan. A bill to develop a statewide plan was introduced in the Nebraska Legislature in 2021 but was indefinitely postponed.

Vulnerable Nebraska Birds

Climate change could shrink or eliminate habitats for these birds. Photos courtesy of the Audubon Society.

Click the link to view the photos

“We need something that’s comprehensive and uses the climate change lens to think about Nebraska’s future and what’s going to be good for wildlife, what’s going to be good for people,” Stoner said.

The state is projected to see some of the highest decreases in crop yields as temperatures continue to rise, according to research from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Meanwhile, residents believe the community has to do something even if politicians are slow to respond. Research published in August by Princeton University and Indiana University Bloomington scientists concluded 59% of Nebraskans are concerned about climate change, but they mistakenly believe they are in the minority. 

Some bright spots can be found federally. In 2021, Sen. Deb Fischer of Nebraska co-sponsored the Growing Climate Solutions Act, which aims to make selling carbon offsets easier for farmers and landowners.

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Kristal Stoner. Photo courtesy of Audubon Society.

“This is something in the climate space, her constituents, landowners, are really going to benefit from,” Stoner said. “That’s how we’re going to [move forward] is when people see mutual benefits. It’s no longer just a climate thing. It’s a human thing.”

At the same time, the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act, which would have provided $1.3 billion annually to wildlife conservation funds, including $17 million annually in Nebraska, died last year in Congress. However, Congress did pass climate legislation as part of the Inflation Reduction Act in 2022. With $370 billion to promote renewable energy, energy-efficient homes and more, the World Resources Institute called it the “largest single step that Congress has ever taken to address climate change.”

As far as Nebraska is concerned, Stoner thinks the state could do more to pull its weight. Though Nebraska isn’t inundated with wildfires or seeing shorelines shrink, the effects of climate change are just as real here.

“I think we need to move faster,” Stoner said. “I think there’s a lot of good progress that has been made. I think we’re moving in a positive direction. But I think we’re not making all the changes that we need to be making.”

Start with a Conversation

In 1986, Titterington built his first bird feeder on his daughter’s Girl Scouts campout in Iowa. The group took empty plastic two-liter bottles and punched holes into them for perches and feed slots. When he got home, he thought he ought to hang it up.

A few years later, he opened his store.

Birds hadn’t previously been a fascination for Titterington. But once he started noticing his winged visitors, there was no turning back. Now he’s immersed in the robust economy built on the passion among Nebraskans and tourists for birds — and working to protect it.

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Western Meadowlark. Photo by Roger van Gelder, courtesy of the Audubon Society.

“That’s one thing about us is we can talk to people on a layman’s level,” Titterington said. “It really helps them understand a little bit better, or at least makes them want to look into it a little bit more.”

Today, Titterington’s daughter, Katie, works the cash register while he’s in the back office. Someday, the plan goes, she’ll own this store and continue what he built. He thought about selling it about five years ago but decided against it — there’d be too much risk of the store not surviving.

“Anybody can sell bird feed. You can go to Hy-Vee, Walmart, any place,” Titterington said. “But those places can’t educate people.”