Matt Johnson misses the whispery peeps and trilling squeaks of the wood thrush. The Audubon birder used to listen to them on the porch at night in upstate South Carolina, enthralled.
Now his birder friends tell him, "Yeah, I used to hear them all the time, too."
Almost 3 billion fewer birds fly in the United States than did 40 years ago, researchers at the benchmark Cornell University Ornithology Lab said in a recent report. The worst losses have been among common "backyard" birds — blackbirds, sparrows, warblers.
Audubon South Carolina on Thursday released a report that is at least as grim as the Cornell report: Nearly two-thirds of the bird species seen every day in places across the nation could be lost by the end of the century — an estimated 389 species — as the climate continues to warm.
In South Carolina the projected loss figure is 20 percent, or as many as 50 birds, from the thrush to exotic Arctic migrators such as the tundra swan.
The seemingly endless miles of woodlands and wetlands of South Carolina have been a refuge for species driven from other places. Now, the state too is at a crux as animals vanish worldwide. Its invaluable environment, on the fringe of the sub-tropic and temperate climate zones, is heating up.
Johnson, the director of bird conservation and engagement for the South Carolina chapter of Audubon, said birds really are the proverbial canaries in the coal mine — the creature that dies to warn miners they are losing oxygen.
They will have to adapt to survive in a hotter, more volatile environment where habitats and food sources are changing, if not disappearing.
If they can't, people will be worse off for it. Birds are needed for a healthy ecosystem — pollinating, dispersing seed, killing insects. Bird watching is estimated to be a $100 billion per year asset to the economy.
There may be no better example than the wood thrush.
Only half the number of thrushes are around now than there were in the 1960s. The birds have been killed off by everything from feral or wandering neighborhood cats to acid rain destroying its food, according to Cornell.
Other species face the same threats. Habitat loss is the big one. Woodlands get timbered, grasslands plowed over, native plant and insect food lost as a place develops. New predators, parasites and poisons are introduced by humans.
“We want to keep common birds common, and we’re not even doing that,” said Pete Marra, one of the authors of the Cornell study.
The key word here is biome, a landscape-scale community of animals and plants that thrive because of each other.
South Carolina is rich in biomes — more than a million acres have been conserved privately or in public land in the eight coastal counties alone, and corridors are being protected to connect them. Two-thirds of the state, nearly 13 million acres, is forest. An estimated 400,000 more acres are coastal marsh.
But the state is the ninth-fastest growing in the country. It has seen an accelerating trend of a warmer annual mean, or average temperature, since the 1980s, with a huge spike in the past decade.
The Audubon report found that 64 percent of more than 600 species studied across both breeding and wintering biomes would be disturbed or displaced as climate warming changes the landscape. The report called for broad and comprehensive climate legislation.
"There is a lot of cause for concern if birds can't adapt. People say all the time they see smaller flocks, fewer numbers of birds," said Johnson of South Carolina Audubon.
“Looking at the birds on this (report) list, you’ll see some of our most iconic species in South Carolina. Tundra Swans will be affected. Brown-headed Nuthatches, with their 'squeaky-toy' calls echoing through our pine woodlands, are also on this list. Even common species, like American robins, will likely see changes,” he said.
Not all bird species are declining in the state. Some wetlands species, such as the endangered wood stork, have made remarkable comebacks, mostly because of habitat management efforts.
Yet others are threatened. The bugling tundra swans are among the most vulnerable to displacement because South Carolina is the far southern edge of the arctic bird's wintering range.
South Carolina has been a leader in the sort of conservation measures needed to stem the declines, with efforts such as the large scale and "corridor" conservation, cultivating open lands to foster birds and other animals.
There are any number of innovative projects underway, from longleaf forest restoration to a cooperative planting of Carolina Gold rice fields in the Santee National Wildlife Refuge along Lake Marion.
Under contract with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service this year, a farmer cleared and planted 25 acres in wetland impoundments that had been overrun by invasive alligator weed. The farmer is selling the recent harvest to customers such as downtown restaurants in Charleston, said Garrett Wilkerson, refuge manager.
The rice plants will be left as natural forage for any number of bird species, from bobolinks to wood storks — at no extra cost to the taxpayers.
Refuge managers hope to extend the project, rotating plantings through more of its 10,000 acres of impoundments.
“This is a win-win-win, benefiting wildlife and everyone from foodies to farmers to conservationists,” said Charleston ornithologist and conservationist Nathan Dias.