The endangered red-crowned crane could see its range halved because of climate change, according to a new study.

Jie Zhao/Corbis via Getty Images

China’s growing army of amateur birdwatchers is a dedicated bunch—and that dedication could eventually pay off in better protection for their feathered friends. A new study uses more than 2 decades of bird sightings by China’s citizen scientists to map the ranges of nearly 1400 species, from the endangered red-crowned crane to the pied falconet. Spinning those maps forward to 2070, researchers have determined what their future ranges might be—and pinpointed 14 priority areas for new nature preserves.

Researchers have used such citizen science data from bird lovers before, but experts say this study is the first in China to use it on a nationwide scale. “One of the highlights of this paper is really the use of the citizen science data set for research and conservation purposes,” says Jimmy Choi, an ecologist at Southern University of Science and Technology who was not involved in the study.

Birding is a relatively new endeavor in China, but it has grown rapidly over the past 20 years. Many universities now have birdwatching teams. The birdwatchers file their sightings on the Bird Report website, where experienced birders screen the contributions for accuracy. Although lagging behind similar databases in countries with longer birding traditions, “there is no better source of data on bird species distribution” in China, Choi says.

Using those data, Ruocheng Hu of Peking University and colleagues created distribution range maps for more than 1000 species. They then modeled what may happen to their ranges under two warming scenarios, one in which global temperatures rise by less than 2°C by 2100, and a worst case scenario in which temperatures increase by 3.7°C or more. The model, which includes variables such as daily and monthly temperatures, seasonal rainfall, and elevation, found that warming temperatures will drive many birds northward and to higher ground, the researchers report this month in PLOS ONE. Although nearly 800 species will enjoy expanded ranges, most of those ranges are in heavily populated and industrialized areas unsuitable for birds. Roughly 240 species will see their ranges shrink.

Migratory birds and birds found only in China will be particularly hard hit. In particular, the iconic red-crowned crane will lose half of its territory nationwide, the authors say. “The existing national nature reserves are not sufficient for protecting important bird habitats, especially after range shifts,” the authors write. To counter such losses, they have identified 14 priority areas for new conservation preserves scattered across the county.

“This is a great paper with a lot of data,” says Amaël Borzée, a behavioral ecologist at Nanjing Forestry University, who is not a co-author. He says the paper will be “very useful for conservation,” especially because the establishment of protected areas in China is generally science-based. But creating new preserves will still face challenges. Local stakeholders will have to be convinced, and there will limitations on how much space can be carved out of crowded regions. The authors suggest China will need to explore innovative approaches such as making urban parks and farmlands more bird-friendly.

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