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Potential climatic changes of the near future have important characteristics that differentiate them from the largest magnitude and most rapid of climatic changes of the Quaternary. These potential climatic changes are thus a cause for considerable concern in terms of their possible impacts upon biodiversity.

Birds, in common with other terrestrial organisms, are expected to exhibit one of two general responses to climatic change: they may adapt to the changed conditions without shifting location, or they may show a spatial response, adjusting their geographical distribution in response to the changing climate. The Quaternary geological record provides examples of organisms that responded to the climatic fluctuations of that period in each of these ways, but also indicates that the two are not alternative responses but components of the same overall predominantly spatial response. Species unable to achieve a sufficient response by either or both of these mechanisms will be at risk of extinction; the Quaternary record documents examples of such extinctions.

Relationships between the geographical distributions of birds and present climate have been modelled for species breeding in both Europe and Africa. The resulting models have very high goodness-of-fit and provide a basis for assessing the potential impacts of anthropogenic climatic changes upon avian species richness in the two continents. Simulations made for a range of general circulation model projections of late 21st century climate lead to the conclusion that the impacts upon birds are likely to be substantial. The boundaries of many species’ potential geographical distributions are likely to be shifted  1000 km. There is likely to be a general decline in avian species richness, with the mean extent of species’ potential geographical distributions likely to decrease. Species with restricted distributions and specialized species of particular biomes are likely to suffer the greatest impacts. Migrant species are likely to suffer especially large impacts as climatic change alters both their breeding and wintering areas, as well as critical stopover sites, and also potentially increases the distances they must migrate seasonally.

Without implementation of new conservation measures, these impacts will be severe and are likely to be exacerbated by land-use change and associated habitat fragmentation. Unless strenuous efforts are made to address the root causes of anthropogenic climatic change, much current effort to conserve biodiversity will be in vain.