Debut of Mississippi Kite in the U.S. Capital Area Prompts Reflection on Climate Change

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In 1987, my friend Dr. Rob Peters and I were having dinner somewhere in Woodley Park on a temperate June evening. Although I had been involved in tropical forest conservation in Costa Rica, climate change was not a hot topic at the time. Rob, a biologist , began talking about his research. I remember his agitation at the fact that people were not paying attention to what he felt was a looming catastrophe for humanity: the rising temperature of our atmosphere.

I had been involved in tropical forest conservation in Costa Rica, but “global climate change” was not as commonplace a term as today. I asked him to describe in lay terms what his technical terminology and scientific research meant. He pulled out his notepad and sketched what the future had in store for us- rising sea levels, and changes in migration patterns as birds sought cooler climates.

Little did I know that nearly three decades later I would see the changes he described in my own back yard! In the past month, our street in North Arlington has become the “it” place for birders flocking to catch a glimpse of the Mississippi kite, an unfamiliar raptor here, forced to leave its home in the South because of the changes my friend Rob described that evening in 1987. 

Rob had drawn an example using the fauna of national parks, which are in part created to protect biodiversity and the ecosystem services vital for our own wellbeing.  He explained how as temperatures rose due to deforestation, use of fossil fuels, and other human activities, the species found in those protected areas would literally feel the heat. As a result, they would migrate further north in search of cooler weather.  Unfortunately, concrete cities often stand in the way of their migrations. Changing climates forced animals to trade protected national parks for less hospitable concrete jungles. It broke my heart.

Today, I continue to dedicate my life to rainforest protection through the Amazon Conservation Team, an organization I co-founded 20 years ago focusing on one of the most critical areas for the mitigation of climate change: the Amazon forest.

Now, people are terrified about the palpable changes in our climate, its consequences and the means to adapt to a very unpredictable future with frightening health risks for society. Now, I hear the lovely calls of the Mississippi kite in my home in Northern Virginia. Traditionally, the kite hails from the southern and central United States but now, to our surprise and delight, the couple and its juveniles are gorging on cicadas and preparing to migrate south for the winter.  In all likelihood, they will return next spring and I hope that the weather in Arlington doesn’t get so hot the Mississippi Kite will once again have to be displaced and search for more cooler places further north.

We know that only the “strong survive;” we know that an incalculable number of species will go extinct, and we know that some will adapt just like the Mississippi Kite and build a new home in an unfamiliar place, which happens to be in my backyard. The question is how we reconcile our delight at finding new and beautiful creatures in our every day lives with the knowledge that what drove them here were not so fortunate forces. 

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