January 12, 2009

Global Warming’s Rare Bird?

Filed under: Adaptation, Animals

While having coffee and reading through the paper on Sunday morning, I came across an AP article about the recent sighting of a LBB (little brown bird in birder’s parlance) in southern Texas. It turns out that everyone was atwitter that the LBB was actually a pine flycatcher—a species which usually inhabits that high elevation mountains of Mexico and Guatemala much further to the south and which had never before been documented in the United States.

I kept reading waiting for the explantion that was sure to come—that “global warming” was likely responsible for the pine flycatcher’s visit as now the climate of the low Texas scrubland was on its way to becoming a possible suitable habitat. But, as I continued to read about the large numbers of bird watchers who had flocked to the area from miles around who could barely contain their enthusiasm, I soon realized that the requisite “blame it on global warming” content was absent.

Then it dawned on me why…this was a story in which people were happy about seeing a cute animal species farther north than it is usually found!

We have an hypothesis that global warming makes bad things happen to “good” species and good things happen to “bad” ones (just think of the plight of polar bears and the explosion of jelly fish, or see here for more examples). But with the pine flycatcher, this wasn’t what was going on (not yet anyway).

The tone of the AP story was a positive one, quoting excited professional and amateur ornithologists alike saying things such as “It’s not a thrilling bird visually. It’s thrilling because it’s a first U.S. record,” and “It’s a very unexpected discovery,” and “It’s a little bit of a treasure hunt.”

With everyone so happy, who would think to interject mean, nasty ol’ global warming into the picture? Had the story been about a swarm of killer bees attacking a motorist whose car had overheated along the highway, then, no doubt, global warming would have been to blame. But not in the instance of the LBB.

The truth of the matter is that as the climate changes, for whatever reason, the earth’s plant and animals do their best to adapt to it and that adaptation, in many cases, involves shifting the range over which they inhabit. Whether the sighting of a lone pine flycatcher in southern Texas is an indication that the pine flycatcher is expanding northward, or whether this is just a wayward individual, is probably too soon to tell. But the point we are trying to make here is that it is okay to rejoice at something that may have a tie-in to global warming. Good things do happen to “good” species. All change is not bad. In fact, it is far from obvious that the path of climate change that we are now on is one in which “bad” changes dominate “good” ones.

It is just that the press (and alarmists), by and large, don’t want you to know that.

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