Endangered Ridgways rails released in Mission Bay
Volunteers prepare to release endangered Ridgways rail birds in Mission Bay in August. Courtesy Tommy Hough

A pair of studies released last fall from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society detail a calamitous decline in worldwide bird populations, and the increased threat of extinction to hundreds of birds due to our warming climate.

According to the Cornell study, North American bird populations dropped 30 percent over the last 50 years, with 2.9 billion fewer birds alive now compared to 1970. To put the enormity of those numbers into perspective, consider the warblers at your bird feeder, the Cooper’s hawk you and your family see in our local canyons, or the brant resting in flotillas in Mission Bay or along the Chula Vista bayfront. Now take away every fourth bird you see. That’s how devastating the results are in these new extinction reports.

What’s most striking is not only the number of birds lost, but the variety of birds affected. The Cornell study found that even common species of birds have undergone “staggering losses” due to habitat destruction, loss of insects and other food sources, predation from cats, and collisions with glass buildings. But the biggest culprit of all? Climate change.

Audubon scientists utilized 140 million observations made by trained birdwatchers and professional researchers to map the range of over 600 North American bird species in their study. They then used the latest climate models to project how each species’ range will shift as global warming continues to affect the continent. In chilling detail, the results demonstrate how birds will be forced to relocate over the next several decades. Many will not survive.

Opinion logo

While this data may be shocking, it must be taken as a call to action — not despair. According to the Audubon study, if humanity can dramatically cut carbon emissions and hold global warming at 1.5 degrees celsius above pre-industrial levels, at least 76 percent of vulnerable bird species will be in a stronger position to survive. Nearly 150 species would no longer be vulnerable to extinction at all. But if that’s to occur, we as a region must do our part to provide greater natural habitat and sequester carbon. The good news is wetland restoration can accomplish both.

In particular, San Diego Audubon’s ReWild Mission Bay feasibility study demonstrates the potential for local habitat restoration, and the ReWild Coalition has been working to develop an alternative that restores native wetland habitat in northeast Mission Bay. Cutting-edge research by local and international institutions has also demonstrated how effective coastal wetlands are at sequestering carbon from the atmosphere, at a rate 10 times that of forests.

Before Mission Bay was dredged and landscaped into the park it is today, it was a wildlife-rich estuary of the San Diego River and the creeks that empty into it. Restoration of native wetlands will provide greater habitat for native and migratory bird populations, help local fish and plant species similarly at risk from climate change, result in cleaner water in an area of Mission Bay notorious for slow rates of circulation, and create greater climate resiliency as sea levels rise.

And, according to a Citizens Coordinate for Century III proposal that incorporates the ReWild Coalition’s “wildest” wetland restoration plan into a revitalization of northeast Mission Bay Park, San Diegans would enjoy greater public access and significant space for low-cost camping options, so even more of our neighbors can visit and enjoy the bay for longer durations.

A few weeks ago, Mayor Kevin Faulconer joined a coalition of mayors from around the U.S. to promote climate-friendly environmental policy in their communities and combat climate change. If the mayor is truly committed to the idea and serious about doing so here in San Diego, we call on him to invest in the abundant opportunity for wetland restoration and climate resiliency at Mission Bay Park. The legacy for our city is considerable, and feasible.

But as we’re seeing now with the calamitous, continent-wide wildfires in Australia, we are at a desperate moment. The clock is running, and there are no more time-outs.

Andrew Meyer is the conservation director at San Diego Audubon. He and his family live in Pacific Beach. Tommy Hough serves as the coordinator for Audubon’s ReWild Mission Bay campaign. He and his wife live in Mira Mesa.