Climate Change moves birds

By Jay V. Huner
Journal Correspondent

The images show a pair of Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks on the left and a pair of Northern Shovelers on the right.

Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks have moved from southern Texas NE into Louisiana and continue to move well north into the central and southern USA. Northern Shovelers represent ducks that made it south and did not remain farther north.

Climate does change. Any review of history shows that there are both short term and long term climate changes. My personal experience with climate change covers the past 68 years and my realization that climate has been changing began about 20 years ago when I started paying attention to the birds in Texas and Louisiana.

Louisiana has been becoming more arid and warmer and this is apparent through a movement of birds, once rare in Louisiana, from southern Texas. Many now breed here. Conspicuous bird species moving into Louisiana have included Black-bellied Whistling-Duck, Neotropic Cormorant, White-winged Dove, Inca Dove, Crested Caracara, Say's Phoebe, various kingbirds, and Cave Swallow. Birds moving from coastal areas northward and eastward include White Ibis and Roseate Spoonbill.

All of the referenced birds are being reported in small numbers as far east as the Atlantic Ocean and north into the central USA. When a birder in Kentucky or Virginia finds a Black-bellied Whistling-Duck or Roseate Spoonbill, it is a big deal and widely reported on the internet and in print media.

The last published account of birds in Louisiana was that of the late Professor George Lowery, Jr. - "Louisiana Birds" (third edition), LSU Press, Baton Rouge, 1974. An update should be published within the near future.

When Professor Lowery wrote his book, Black-bellied Whistling-Duck, Neotropic Cormorant, White-winged Dove, Inca Dove, Crested Caracara, and Say's Phoebe were very rare and only encountered for the most part in extreme southwest Louisiana, particularly in Cameron Parish along the coast. Black-bellied Whistling-Duck and Neotropic Cormorant are now found throughout Louisiana and often in very large flocks. White-winged Dove, once a protected species, is now included as a game species. Inca Dove is a very small dove with a long tail and a scaly feather pattern. It is still a protected song bird and likely will always be.

Crested Caracara is a striking bird of prey most closely related to falcons. Its white head and white tipped wings set against a black body and wings turns heads of visitors to Calcasieu, Cameron and Jefferson Davis parishes. In Professor Lowery's day, birders searched for days to find single Caracaras in extreme southwest Cameron Parish. Now, a dedicated birder can find one on most days.

Duck hunting is a big deal in Louisiana. But, over the past decade, hunters have complained about reduced numbers of ducks and arrival of large numbers of ducks in late January after the season has ended. Recently, I read a report in the Delta Waterfowl magazine that documented changes in duck migratory patterns. That is, as long as ducks have open water and a place to feed, especially harvested grain and soybean fields for puddle ducks like Mallards, Northern Pintail, Gadwall and teal, they will not migrate to the coast in the numbers experienced in the past even if temperatures are low in the central USA.

Obviously, a good number of ducks still do migrate to the Gulf Coast. A complication involves the fact that these ducks become nocturnal during the season to avoid hunters and move around from safe areas like refuges during the night to feed. In fact, many ducks normally associated with shallow water will rest 10-20 miles off shore in the Gulf of Mexico during the day during the hunting season! Once the hunting season ends, the ducks become diurnal-- active during the day--and become very conspicuous within a few days, much to the consternation of the hunters!

Birds have shown laymen birders and professional ornithologists that our climate is changing. Is this change permanent or temporary and what causes climate change? Those are the subjects of much debate especially when we are experiencing the coldest winter in several decades (2013-14).

Jay V. Huner
Louisiana Ecrevisse
428 Hickory Hill Drive
Boyce, Louisiana 71409