Taking Care of the Birds

I’m on my way back to Beijing from the most inspirational meeting about birds I’ve ever witnessed. This week in Abu Dhabi I met birders, conservationists, scientists, government representatives, NGOs and many more people from an array of backgrounds and cultures who share a single passion – for migratory birds.

Convened by BirdLife International and hosted by the International Fund for Houbara Conservation, the “Summit for the Flyways” was designed to address the decline in migratory bird populations on all of the world’s flyways, from the Eastern Pacific to East Asia-Australasia and everywhere in between. On all these migratory routes, populations of migratory birds are declining and, according to the “State of the World’s Birds“, launched at the Summit, 1 in 8 of the world’s bird species is at risk of extinction. However, alongside that wake-up call, there was a strong message of hope: conservation works!

Vivian Fu and Yong Ding-Li, two of Asia’s brightest stars in bird conservation, enjoy an early morning birding walk during the Summit of the Flyways.

The Summit showcased inspirational examples of how, when resources are available, bird conservation can be successful.  And passionate people – through local communities and champions – are at the heart of successful efforts to protect birds.  Given that migratory birds respect no borders, the BirdLife family – with more than 120 national partners around the world – is uniquely placed to coordinate efforts to save migratory birds along the flyways.

Alongside other members of the BirdLife Advisory Group, I was honoured to support Patricia Zurita, BirdLife’s CEO, to convene more than ten international donors with a view to creating a “Global Alliance for Bird Conservation Action” and, with commitments secured from China’s Qiaonyu Foundation and the US’s National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to host further meetings in 2018 to broaden the alliance, it looks as if we’re well on the way to a step-change in funding for global bird conservation.

Tom Lovejoy, “The Godfather of Biodiversity”, with representatives of the Qiaonyu Foundation.

As Thomas Lovejoy said at the opening of the meeting – “If you take care of birds, you take care of most of the environmental problems in the world” and today I think we can say that, although there is still a huge amount to do to halt and reverse their decline, the future of migratory birds is a little brighter.

See the outcome declaration here.

Summit for the Flyways

I’m writing this from Abu Dhabi at the opening of BirdLife International “Summit for the Flyways” which, from 23-26 April, brings together some of the world’s greatest bird scientists, conservationists, communicators and policy influencers to address one question: how do we best tackle the threats facing migratory birds?

Migratory birds have a hard life. To get to where they need to be – to breed and find food and shelter – they must run the gauntlet of illegal hunting/killing, insensitively placed wind turbines, pollution and a panoply of other threats. And these threats are only increasing.

The Beijing Cuckoo undertakes a phenomenal migration, linking China’s capital with Mozambique and southeastern Africa, but is facing threats including habitat loss, changes in agricultural practices and climate change. 

To underpin the Summit, BirdLife International has released a key publication: The State of the World’s Birds 2018.  This important and comprehensive report provides a snapshot of the health of not only the world’s birds, but the ecosystems they represent.  It’s described as “taking the pulse of the planet”.

State of the World’s Birds shows that many of the world’s 11,000 bird species are in dire straits. At least 40% of these species are in decline, and one in eight bird species is globally threatened with extinction.  It’s a wake-up call.

2011-09-05 Far Eastern Curlew
The Far Eastern Curlew (Numenius madagascariensis) is one of several shorebird species in danger of extinction.

Many bird species known for being widespread and common are now at risk of extinction; the Snowy Owl, Atlantic Puffin, Grey Parrot and European Turtle-dove are among the instantly recognisable bird species that are now threatened with extinction due to human-driven factors such as climate change, illegal hunting and overfishing.  Overall, agriculture (the loss of habitat from agricultural expansion, as well as agricultural intensification) is the greatest driver of bird extinction worldwide.

The continued deterioration of the world’s birds is a major concern for the health of our planet; birds provide a wide variety of ecosystem services, such as controlling insect pest populations, and dispersing plant seeds. Vultures, one of the most threatened bird groups, provide crucial sanitary services across South Asia and Africa through the disposal of animal carcasses.

Here are some more of the publication’s key findings:

The Yellow-breasted Bunting could become the next Passenger Pigeon

Many people are familiar with the cautionary tale of the Passenger Pigeon Ectopistes migratorius, a bird that once numbered billions in North America, and that was driven to extinction by 1914 through excessive hunting and habitat destruction. Sadly, history appears to be repeating itself.

Until recently, the Yellow-breasted Bunting Emberiza aureola was one of Eurasia’s most abundant bird species, breeding across the northern Palaearctic from Finland to Japan. However, since 1980, its population has declined by 90%, while its range has contracted by 5,000 km, and BirdLife has now assessed the species as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List – meaning that the species is facing an extremely high risk of extinction. Although now officially banned, large-scale hunting of this bird, particularly in China, continues – in 2001, an estimated one million buntings, known colloquially as ‘the rice bird’, were consumed in China’s Guangdong province alone and, in November 2017 they were found for sale on China’s online shopping website, Taobao.

The European Turtle-dove Streptopelia turtur was once a familiar migrant to Europe, Central Asia and the Middle East from the Sahel zone of Africa. Because of habitat loss and hunting, the species is now declining across its range, especially in Western Europe, and its conservation status has recently been re-classified as Vulnerable to extinction.

The Snowy Owl Bubo scandiacus is surely one of the most widely recognised birds in the world. It is also widespread, occurring throughout the Arctic tundra of the Northern Hemisphere and, in Asia, wintering as far south as northern China. Yet, the species is experiencing a rapid decline, most likely connected to climate change: changes to snowmelt and snow cover can affect the availability and distribution of prey. The species has recently been categorised as Vulnerable.

In the marine realm, the depletion of fish populations through overfishing and climate change has caused rapid declines in widespread and much-loved seabirds such as Atlantic Puffin Fratercula arctica and Black-legged Kittiwake Rissa tridactyla—both are now considered Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List.

Overall threats to the world’s birds

Human actions are responsible for most threats to birds. Foremost among these threats are: agricultural expansion and intensification, which impacts 1,091 globally threatened birds (74%); logging, affecting 734 species (50%); invasive alien species, which threaten 578 (39%) species; and hunting and trapping, which put 517 (35%) species at risk. Climate change represents an emerging and increasingly serious threat—currently affecting 33% of globally threatened species—and one that often exacerbates existing threats.

A powerful example of unsustainable agricultural practices, neurotoxic insecticides known as neonicotinoids are proving highly detrimental to birds. One recent study from the USA found that migrating White-crowned Sparrows Zonotrichia leucophrys exposed to neonicotinoids lost a quarter of their body mass and fat stores. The neurotoxin also impaired the birds’ migratory orientation.

Importantly, as well as the wake-up call about the decline in many bird species, the report also provides a message of hope, showing that conservation works and can change the fortunes of species in trouble.

At least 25 bird species would have gone extinct without conservation action over recent decades. These include the Seychelles White-eye Zosterops modestus, the Echo Parakeet Psittacula eques and the Azores Bullfinch Pyrrhula murina – all species confined to oceanic islands.

These messages are providing the backdrop to the Summit for the Flyways and the challenge now is to design a coordinated response across the flyways including governments, international organisations, NGOs, civil society and business.

In that context, it’s heartening to see so many people representing countries along all the major flyways, from China, Mongolia and Australia in the East Asian Australasian Flyway to the Netherlands, UK, North Africa in the Eurasian-African Flyway and the Americas in the west.  From China specifically, Professor Lei Guangchun from Beijing Forestry University is here and will be speaking about the recent positive changes in policy in China.

It promises to be an inspirational few days and, I hope, a catalyst for scaling up both awareness and conservation action to protect these great avian travellers and the ecosystems to which they belong.