For Australia, fall came with endless bushfires and infernos, causing massive destruction. Flames consumed over 26,000 square miles of land — nearly the size of West Virginia — killing at least 25 people and incinerating almost half a billion animals.
And that’s where the birds come in.
Prof. Michael Webster, neurobiology and behavior, has been studying various species of Australian birds since 1992. His work focuses on the impact of ecological conditions on birds’ breeding behavior. For birds, the bushfires are not a direct concern.
“[While] fires sweeping through an area often kill animals and birds,” Webster said. “Fires have always been a part of the ecology of Australia and the animals are adapted to dealing with them at a certain level.”
The surviving birds grapple with indirect consequences of the fire, like a lack of food and less breeding, which can be detrimental to the species’ survival. But, according to Webster, while the spectacle of the unstoppable blazes captures the world’s attention, they’re not the birds’ biggest problem.
Instead, Webster said, it is a 30-year-long trend of increasingly dry conditions — not just fires — that pose an existential threat to Australia’s diverse avian populations’ ability to reproduce.
“In the last 30 years I’ve been working in Australia, it has been drying up for years and years, and when it gets really dry we have extreme years like this,” Webster said. “And when we see these extreme years more often, animals just don’t breed.”
During yearly visits to Australia, Webster and his team monitor several bird species and their nests at a research site in southern Queensland. While the group generally documents around 800 nests in the area each year — which were not affected by fire — this year they counted a mere 250.
“Our study site didn’t burn,” Webster said.“This is just a consequence of how hot it was and how dry it is.”
The low nest count wasn’t a surprise to Webster, who explained that dry temperatures lead to fewer insects for birds to eat, which, in turn, causes them to reproduce less. As a result, the best they can do is try to sustain themselves and hope they live to see another breeding season.
But not all bird species may make it: Webster said that Australia’s geography — arid in the center and wetter around the country’s edges – spells doom for many species as the continent continues to dry.
As animals adapted to living in arid conditions move outwards towards areas that used to be wet, they outcompete the species native to the rainforests, according to Webster, who warned that “some will immediately go extinct.”
More importantly, birds “are just the canary in the coal mine” — merely the first indicators of danger to come. The same ecological pressures forcing birds into survival mode will also choke mammal and reptile populations, causing a ripple effect across all of Australia’s ecosystem.
The water shortages, burning homes and power outages in Australia are just “the tip of the iceberg of climate change,” Webster said. “It’s sad for the people and animals there, but it’s going to affect all of us just as much in the future.”
While acknowledging the importance of philanthropic efforts in Australia, such as “wildlife and animal conservation, donating to NGOs [and] purchasing land for conservation” — Webster sees these efforts as merely a “bandaid” for the gushing wound of climate change.
“The overwhelming problem here is that the climate is changing,” Webster said. “And long-term change comes from supporting organizations that are tackling climate change — to mitigate and ideally reverse the increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.”
Webster was dismayed that future generations may not be able to admire the beauty of the diverse continent he spent his career exploring.
“It’s a wonderful place,” Webster said. “It’s unique. My fear is that the generation after mine won’t be able to see the animals I have seen. And that really makes me sad.”