'The threats driving the avian extinction crisis are invariably of humanity’s making.'

| 2nd May 2018

Atlantic puffins

A five-year study on the state of the world's birds makes for sombre reading. A significant number of once-common species now face decline and experts warn this worrying trend should ring alarm bells for the state of nature as a whole. CATHERINE HARTE reports

The data are unequivocal. We are undergoing a steady and continuing deterioration in the status of the world’s birds.

The snowy owl, Atlantic puffin, grey parrot and European turtle-dove are among the instantly recognisable birds that are now facing extinction - primarily due to the expansion and intensification of agriculture.

Indeed, one in eight of our bird species are critically endangered, according to the State of the World’s Birds 2018 - a comprehensive global study.

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Tris Allinson, is a senior global science officer at BirdLife International, which produced the report. She said: “The data are unequivocal. We are undergoing a steady and continuing deterioration in the status of the world’s birds.

Impact of agriculture

"Roughly one in eight species now faces extinction. This includes once widespread and abundant species that only a few decades ago were a familiar sight across great swathes of the planet.” 

The report claims that, in total, 74 percent of  1,091 globally threatened birds are impacted by farming, 50 percent by logging, 39 percent by invasive alien species and 35 percent by hunting and trapping. Climate change also represents an emerging and increasingly serious threat—currently affecting 33 percent of globally endangered species.

Neurotoxic insecticides - known as neonicotinoids - were found to be highly detrimental to birds. One recent study from the USA found that migrating white-crowned sparrows exposed to neonicotinoids lost a quarter of their body mass and fat stores.  The neurotoxin also impaired the birds’ migratory orientation.

Allinson added: “The threats driving the avian extinction crisis are many and varied, but invariably of humanity’s making.” 

History repeating itself

The report also warns of history repeating itself - citing the example of how the once populous passenger pigeon of North America -  numbering in the billions - was driven to extinction in 1914 through excessive hunting and habitat destruction.

Today, the population of the yellow-breasted bunting has declined by 90 percent since 1980. Although now officially banned, large-scale hunting continues - particularly in China.

Likewise, the numbers of European turtle-dove are falling rapidly due to habitat loss and the illegal trade in the grey parrot has rendered this bird endangered. 

The decline of the snowy owl is linked to climate change, with changes in the snowmelt and snow cover affecting the availability and distribution of its prey.

And overfishing accounts for the loss in numbers of the Atlantic puffin and the black-legged kittiwake which are both now categorised as “vulnerable” on the International Union of Conservation of Nature ( IUCN) Red List.

Conservation can work

Despite these worrying findings, the report also provides a message of hope. At least 25 bird species would have gone extinct without conservation action over recent decades.

These include the Seychelles white-eye, the echo parakeet and the Azores bullfinch - all species confined to oceanic islands.

But according to BirdLife, protecting wide-ranging birds requires a more global approach and although pinpointing the most critical sites to safeguard is essential, it says this needs to be complemented by broader-scale strategies.

Its Trillion Trees programme - a partnership between WWF, WCS and BirdLife - is aiming for one trillion trees planted, protected and restored by 2050.

Patricia Zurita, chief executive of BirdLife International, said: “Although the report provides a sobering update on the state of birds and biodiversity and of the challenges ahead, it also clearly demonstrates that solutions do exist and that significant, lasting success can be achieved.” 

This Author

Catherine Harte is a contributing editor of The Ecologist. This story is based on a news release from BirdLife International.

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