I observed a Carolina Wren for the first time 23 years ago. I was participating in the Massachusetts Audubon Bird-A-Thon. While I was relatively new to birding then, the fact that I had never had Carolina Wren in Massachusetts was not due to by fledgling status at the time, but the fact that the species was indeed very rare for this state. In fact, not much later, that winter if I recall correctly, I received a call as part of a rare bird alert phone tree (yes, it was during those dark distant days before text alerts on a smart phone) that there was a Carolina Wren in Gloucester. I rushed off and saw that beautiful and rugged little bird hopping around in the cold of coastal New England. Fast forward two decades and those stories sound like fiction to birders who weren’t there then. Carolina Wrens are now so common in Massachusetts that not only can they be found in proper habitat anywhere in the state, they are one of those species on the short list of a couple dozen birds to be expected on most outings. Much of the speculation about their northward expansion of range focused on human activity. Thankfully, for once the human behavior was of the beneficial sort: feeding stations. Carolina Wrens have increasingly become regular winter visitors to backyard bird feeders (they are particularly fond of suet). So the theory is that the more adventurous and hardy wrens exploited human generosity to survive the northern winters and stuck around to breed. But like most scientific theories, there are too many factors to make straight line connections. It has become increasingly clear that climate change is an important factor impacting the Carolina Wren’s range expansion.
According to the National Audubon Society’s State of the Birds Report, “Nearly 60 percent of the 305 relatively widely distributed species found in North America in winter are on the move, shifting their ranges northward by an average of 35 miles based on the past 40 years of citizen-science Christmas Bird Count data.” My personal experience of avid birdwatching for most of my adult life anecdotally bears this out. Thankfully, someone has been crunching the numbers to prove the hunches that birders have had about the increase of southern species, which unfortunately is coupled with an overall decline of common species. Of the 20 species of common birds in greatest decline, all have shown at least a 50% decline since 1967 and some as much as 80%! In this report, even apparent good news is troubling once you scratch the surface. “Grassland species [are an exception to the push for northward expansion of range]; however, this is far from good news and instead reflects the grim reality of severely-depleted grassland habitat and suggests that these species now face a double threat from the combined stresses of habitat loss and climate adaptation.” The report pronounces the tragically obvious conclusion, “All of these findings provide new and powerful evidence that global warming is having an impact on birds, their habitat, and other wildlife.” The sad reality is that what we are seeing in these data are just the beginning of what will be a massive movement of climate refugees across all species including our own. Already, Bicknell’s Thrushes have lost the subalpine habitat they require for breeding here in Massachusetts. That habitat has progressively been restricted to higher and higher elevations. So for species that require it, it has been like watching the flood waters rise, engulfing the mountain peaks making them uninhabitable. At least the birds have the option to fly north, the snowshoe hares won’t be so lucky.
The seeds of these thoughts came out of the Pneuma Divina reflection on this past week’s Darkwood Brew. The fecundity of the natural world is highlighted in the story of the third day of creation that was read. On that day, trees are said to bring forth fruit with the seed in it. It is a splendid reminder that the future is contained in the present. All life provides some means for continuation. Unfortunately, survival, which has never been easy, is clearly getting only more difficult. And there is no denying that we humans, so poetically described in Psalm 8 as a little lower than the angels, are much to blame. Our behavior as stewards of creation has been more diabolical than angelic. We have shown ourselves to be a bad seed, sowing not hope, but despair. But if we can find the faith to trust the message of scripture that God is rich in fecundity and blesses creation with the same creative power, then we can plant the seed of hope in the soil of repentance and know a different future. The seed is indeed in the fruit, may the seed we plant today not be a bitter fruit tomorrow.
Rev. Ian Lynch is pastor of First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ in Brimfield, MA He blogs about the intersection of spirituality and society at CultureDove.blogspot.com and the intersection of spirituality and ornithology at https://birdparables.blogspot.com
Ian, I’m not a fan of birds in the least bit, and yet I’m enamored by your beautiful descriptions. This is beautiful. Thank you.