Silent Skies?

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I have always loved birds and was delighted to be asked to write a few words about this year’s World Migratory Bird Day. The only problem being that I was so busy watching migratory birds over our long Ascension weekend (as May is THE month when the bulk of the spring migrants pass), that I haven’t had much time to write about migratory birds. One day was also taken up by surveying and counting all the birds either seen or heard in one square kilometre, a contribution to the new Swiss Atlas of breeding birds currently being prepared by the Swiss Ornithological Institute. This project relies on a lot of volunteer birders to count all the birds returning from the south to breed, and is a way of documenting what is happening to them. Sadly, for many migratory species, populations are declining.

Bird migration—the massive twice-yearly movement of tens of millions of more or less tiny flying feathered creatures finding their way without the need of GPS or other electronic devices—is one of nature’s most amazing phenomena. A phenomenon that is highly threatened, with an estimated 25 million migratory birds falling victim each year to illegal hunting while crossing the Mediterranean.

This is certainly even greater when the entire Eurasian-African migratory routes are taken into account, since hunting is rife in most African countries and increasing as the human population increases, despite laws at national, regional and global level.

An osprey that was shot during migration. Fortunately, this bird survived. © Projet Balbuzard Nos OiseauxAn osprey that was shot during migration. Fortunately, this bird survived. © Projet Balbuzard Nos Oiseaux

But it is not only poor people in Africa that are killing migratory birds with slingshots and other weapons to put birds into the pot. Even in Europe several “gourmet” restaurants have been caught serving strictly protected migratory bird species—restaurants that get stars in well-known guidebooks, which indirectly become accomplices to the act.

The problem is with an ever-increasing human population, there is going to be increasing pressure on birds at all levels. The wanton killing of migratory birds, with Italy and Malta at the head of the list but many other countries not far behind, must be stopped. Development aid needs to be focused on assuring that poor people in Africa have alternatives to catching any bird that they can get their hands on to eat, and rich countries cannot embarrass themselves by eating migratory birds in the name of “gourmet tradition”.

Hunting and consumption is not the only threat to migratory birds, as many thousands of migratory birds fall victim to a huge network of power lines and wind farms. These are increasing in many parts of the world, and their toll on migratory birds is unknown as there is hardly anyone on the ground to observe the carnage (and once a bird is killed, it is quickly consumed by other predators, leaving no trace).

Migratory pintails in Spain's Doñana National Park, site of one of WWF's first conservation projects. © Wendy StrahmMigratory pintails in Spain’s Doñana National Park, site of one of WWF’s first conservation projects. © Wendy Strahm

Finally, migratory birds require areas where they can stop to rest and feed, and among the most important areas are wetlands, which are also crucial breeding and wintering sites. WWF has been actively supporting the work of the international Convention on Wetlands, better known as the Ramsar Convention, which over its 45 years of existence has generated over 215 million hectares of internationally designated wetlands (Ramsar sites). Since 1999, 100 million hectares have been designated with direct support from the WWF International Freshwater programme. A combination of actions, including wise habitat protection and management, and a halt to the illegal killing of migratory birds is essential if we are not to be confronted with the spectre of having, in the near future, silent skies.

Denis Landenbergue is manager of freshwater habitat conservation at WWF International. 


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