Birds in Danger – Empty Skies – Kill the Birds

Over 52% of the world’s 10,500 bird species are in decline or in real danger of global extinction. This is one of the alarming findings in the recently published landmark report called the ‘State of the World’s Birds 2018 – Taking the Pulse of the Planet’ prepared by Birdlife International. This report has been four years in the making. The extinction crisis has now also spread to a few well known species like the Snowy Owl, the Atlantic Puffin and the European Turtle Dove (Gamiem). This is a red light warning for the entire planet as birds are found in all places on Earth and many of them travel across the planetary eco systems and this makes them a perfect indicator of the state of the global environment. Birdlife has been conducting risk and extinction studies for decades using robust scientific methodology and therefore this report is exceptionally reliable. Tris Allinson, Birdlife’s Senior Global Science Officer said “The data is unequivocal. We are undergoing a steady and continuing deterioration of the status of the World’s birds.”

Image of Snowy Owl - endangered birds

Under threat: The Snowy Owl is one of the well-known species to which the extinction crisis has spread.

Birds exist in an extraordinary variety of forms, from penguins to eagles and hummingbirds to ostriches. Birds are essential contributors to ecosystems. They control insect populations. They are scavengers as well as pollinators and seed dispersers playing a frontline role in the reproduction of plant and tree species. We like birds and we express this in art and symbols across all cultures. In America 80 million people and in the UK 33% of the population watch and feed birds. Live bird species in the wild are a substantial contributor to any economy by far superior to the caged, dead or stuffed birds produced by hunting and trapping. 20% to 40% of all leisure tourists are interested in wildlife watching. Avi-tourism is the largest market for trips to developing countries from Europe. Malta is missing out on a lucrative and environmentally respectful market segment because of the ongoing wholesale destruction of wildlife and natural spaces in our country.

The report speaks of 13,000 Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas (IBAs) existing around the globe both on land and at sea. These IBAs are the largest and most comprehensive network of sites that are significant for the global biodiversity. One third of these IBAs are not pristine but include roads and towns – this is not good. This information has led to the identification of Key Biodiversity Areas (KBA) where more intensive conservation efforts should be focussed. Needless to say when it comes to local communities, such as in our country, it is the local environment that is important to us irrespective of whether it is an IBA or not.

Since the first extinction assessment in 1988, species considered highly threatened then, now continue to go extinct whilst formerly common and widespread species are in sharp decline. It is widely acknowledged that we are in the middle of a mass extinction event.  This extinction event is the 6th in the Earth’s 4.5 billion years of existence. Species are disappearing 100 to 10,000 times faster than the natural rate. Climate change, agricultural expansion, logging, urbanisation, pollution, human disruption of habitats and the introduction of alien species are all driving the decline in bird populations. It is scientifically proven that there is one thing that all these activities have in common: they are all caused by humans, you and me.

Image of deforestation - birds in crisis

Insecticides used to improve crop yields contain neurotoxins. Neurotoxins are poisonous chemicals that harm the nervous systems of humans and other animals. These neurotoxins remain on seeds and in surface water and are ingested by millions of birds. It causes birds to lose a quarter of their body mass and also effects their orientation that is essential for migrating birds. Much of the expansion in agriculture is because of over consumption of food by people. This means that it is excess and waste that is actually driving birds to extinction, not the need to feed the underprivileged people of the world.

About two thirds of bird species live in forests and for most, this is their only habitat. Seven million hectares of forest are destroyed every year in order to meet global demand for timber, paper and land for commodity crops and biofuels. The latter’s label as a green fuel is truly undeserved.

Selective logging, the chopping down of only some of the tress in a forest is not a viable alternative. It degrades forests and reduces biodiversity. Degraded forests become more accessible to poachers, hunters and trappers who then move in and make a bad situation much worse.

Humans also like to move animals and plants around the world releasing invasive alien species, such as rats, dogs, cats and livestock, in habitats where they do not belong. This practice is known to be responsible for the extinction of 112 bird species.

Hunting and trapping of wild birds for sport and cage bird trading is a major threat to birds in the Mediterranean, Central and Northern Europe and the Caucasus (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Southern Russia). We have estimates for the first time that at least 12 million birds annually are taken in these regions and mostly during migrations.

Image of three dead turtle dove birds shot in Malta

The spreading of human activity across the globe with road and railway building through forests continues to destroy habitats and encourage land reclamation in wetlands. This gives access to humans with the resulting loss of wildlife in road deaths and again logging, poaching, hunting and trapping accelerate the devastation.

Fishing activity has increased dramatically since 1960. It is estimated conservatively that hundreds of thousands of seabirds are killed every year when they are accidentally caught in fishing gear – gillnet fisheries kill 400,000 birds; longline fisheries kill 160,000 birds; trawlers fisheries kill 50,000 birds.

Climate change is disrupting ecosystems as bird species move in order to follow their familiar environment. This places them out of sync with their prey, predators and competitors, effectively throwing their entire life support system in disarray.

The rapidly deteriorating state of the bird populations across the globe exemplifies all that is wrong in our relationship with the natural world. The unthinking and indiscriminate activity of humans is causing a collapse of ecosystems worldwide. The planetary ecosystems are interrelated and interdependent, so by killing other species and destroying their marine and land habitats globally on such a massive scale, we have provoked a catastrophic domino effect. The collapse of the planetary life support systems is, as you are reading this, accelerating exponentially and is caused by human ignorance, over consumption and indiscriminate economic growth. The economic model that will save life the Earth as we know it, is one that would provide wellbeing for humans whilst operating within the life giving biosphere putting in more than we are taking out. Human activity should be regenerative and not degenerative. There was a time when humans had to kill in order to survive. Now our wellbeing depends on stopping all killing.

First in a serious of two articles on the ‘State of the World’s Bird Species 2018 – Taking the Pulse of the Planet’ report prepared by Birdlife International.

Article published in the Sunday Times of Malta, 26th August 2018