The risk of climate change to Australian birds and the cost of helping them adapt are the focus of a new report, the first of its kind to assess all birds across a whole continent.

Almost 400 species or subspecies of Australian birds are expected to be highly exposed or highly sensitive to climate change, the study finds, and the cost of helping these birds adapt would be $18.8 million per year, or a total of $941 million over 50 years.

As one measure of the risk, the authors studied how climate change would alter the size and location of areas with suitable climate conditions for these birds. This ‘climate space’, they found, is likely to completely disappear by 2085 for 101 species or subspecies of Australian land birds and inland water birds.

Birds confined to the Cape York Peninsula rainforests are expected to be most vulnerable. The Tiwi Islands, Wet Tropics, central and southern arid zones, and Australia’s south, particularly Kangaroo Island and King Island, are other areas where substantial changes to rainfall, temperature and food availability will affect many birds.

The report also highlights the climate change risk to seabirds. Declines in local ocean food supplies are expected to be a problem for seabird breeding colonies on Lord Howe and Norfolk Islands, the Great Barrier Reef and the Houtman Abrolhos.

The risk of more frequent and intense fires, and the climate change vulnerability of birds of small islands, were also highlighted in the report.

Looking at how to help birds adapt, the report emphasised the importance of monitoring, and securing and managing climate refugia in the landscape. However, according to report co-author Stephen Garnett of Charles Darwin University, “in most cases doing more of what we do at the moment, such as fire management, weed and feral animal control and, for marine birds, controls on fishing, will be the best approach to helping Australian birds cope with climate change.”  The cost of captive breeding was also considered as a last resort for 29 species and subspecies.

The report acknowledged the important contribution of birdwatchers. Decades of observations from groups including BirdLife Australia now make it possible to understand bird distributions, how they may change under future climate conditions, and how to prepare for these changes.

The report, funded by the National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility, brought together researchers from James Cook and Charles Darwin universities, CSIRO, and BirdLife Australia.


Garnett, ST, Franklin, DC, Ehmke, G, VanDerWal, JJ, Hodgson, L, Pavey, C, Reside,
AE, Welbergen, JA, Butchart, SHM, Perkins, GC, Williams, SE (2013) Climate change
adaptation strategies for Australian birds, National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility, Gold Coast, pp. 109.

Report reveals climate change costs for Australian birds. Charles Darwin University media release, 14/05/2013.