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Migratory birds are dying, here’s why we all need to care

From changing breeding grounds to electrocution risk, avian species are under more threat than ever. Dr Omar Al Attas, an expert in environmental protection and regeneration, explains how to create an effective refuge. 

a large flock of birds flying over a field

In the 17th century, an English scientist named Charles Morton hypothesized that birds migrated to the moon and back each year. Morton’s idea seems fanciful today, but he was serious; he wrote the first formal study on bird migration in England.

Birds do not fly to the moon, of course, but one species, the Bar-tailed godwit, holds the world record for the longest non-stop flight by a migratory bird. One of them flew for 11 days without resting between Alaska and Australia, a trans-Pacific journey of 13,559 kilometers.

Think about that for a moment. Every year, this humble shorebird performs a staggering feat. Plenty of other species make similar, if slightly less extreme, annual journeys. 

Many migratory birds depend on insects for food, but insect populations are declining worldwide. The culprits include deforestation and overzealous use of insecticides. And this trend makes birds’ migrations even more challenging. 

Most migratory birds fly south in the winter and return north in the spring to breed. The Spoon-billed sandpiper breeds in Russia in May, then wings its way southward through China and Thailand to spend the winter in Myanmar. White storks travel from northern Europe to winter in Spain or even Sudan or Chad. The Arctic tern flies from pole to pole, the longest migration of any animal.

Different species often share similar routes, or flyways, that cross the sky like avian superhighways. More than 300 species migrate along flyways in the Americas, from the tiny Ruby-throated hummingbird to the pterodactyl-sized Whooping crane.

They run a gauntlet each time. Birds comprise the overwhelming majority of all migratory animal species at risk of extinction, according to the UN Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals [CMS]. Over-exploitation and climate change are two of the biggest threats, CMS said in a report issued in February.

Deadly fishing nets and wind turbines

CMS estimates that as many as 36 million birds are illegally killed or captured each year in the Mediterranean region alone. The number may be even higher in Southeast Asia.

Despite preventive measures in place, albatrosses and other seabirds still perish as bycatch of the fishing industry, especially in southern oceans. On land, birds are electrocuted by power lines or die from colliding with wind turbines, towers, and buildings. In South Africa, researchers counted 2,294 dead birds under a single power line during the five years up to 2011, according to BirdLife International, a non-governmental conservation group.

Climate change, meanwhile, will probably take a worsening toll on migratory birds. A study of a population of barnacle geese found them arriving earlier at their Arctic breeding grounds due to changing patterns of snowmelt. These geese did not alter their egg laying to match their earlier arrival, and their chicks hatched after the seasonal peak in food quality and were thus at greater risk of starving, the CMS report said.

A warmer planet is a major challenge — and not only for birds. But there are steps we can take to make their migrations less perilous.

Insulating or burying electricity cables, for example, can eliminate the risk of electrocution. In 2013, BirdLife International partnered with authorities in Sudan to insulate a 31-kilometer power line that had caused the deaths of thousands of endangered Egyptian vultures. As of last year, no bird electrocutions had been reported there.

The company I work for, Red Sea Global, is developing solar-powered resorts along Saudi Arabia’s western coast. At our flagship destination, called The Red Sea, we have taken care to bury all our power cables instead of building overhead lines.

Creating a safe corridor for migratory birds

Red Sea Global’s areas are refuge for many migratory species, including the Crab plover, Glossy ibis, and regionally endangered Sooty falcon. Our ornithologists have created more than 30 artificial nesting sites to encourage Sooty falcons to breed, and we are seeing success. We also track several falcons with satellite tags when they migrate to and from Madagascar.

Our company is enhancing wetlands and planting mangrove trees, both of which provide havens for migratory birds. Our constructed wetlands sewage treatment plant attracts ducks and other waterfowl. We have already planted more than 1 million mangroves, in our push to plant 50 million in coming years.

As for insects, we minimize the use of chemical insecticides and are looking at novel, non-chemical alternatives. Overall, Red Sea Global is creating a safe corridor for migrating birds.

At a global level, governments and concerned organizations must collaborate more frequently to fight the unsustainable killing and capture of migratory birds. They should protect and expand bird-friendly wetlands and speed up efforts to phase out toxic lead ammunition and fishing weights to prevent poisoning of birds. 

This won’t happen overnight, but we have to try. Birds are a bellwether for our planetary health. A decrease in bird populations serves as a warning of common threats to people and biodiversity.

Thomas Lovejoy, a renowned ornithologist and conservationist, popularized the term biological diversity, later shortened to biodiversity.

‘If you take care of birds, you take care of most of the environmental problems in the world,’ Lovejoy was fond of saying.

I couldn’t agree more.

Dr. Omar Al Attas is Head of Environmental Protection and Regeneration for the Red Sea Global. 

More features: 

Can US mitigation banking policy help UK-specific climate challenges?

Data centres are transforming into key contributors to the future power grid

How county councils are developing Local Environmental Improvement Plans framework

Image: James Wainscoat


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