08 September 2007

For the birds

Around the world,from Antarctica to Scotland, birds are feeling negative impacts from climate change. Their habits are changing and their numbers are dropping. Both terrestrial and pelagic birds are affected. Here is a rundown of some of the latest to be reported.

Changes in climate are resulting in lower numbers and changing behaviours of avian species

...[T]he past and the present signal a worrisome future for the world's 17 species of penguins...

"Penguins are the bellwether of climate change. As birds they're pretty much at the top of the food chain and act as two-footed bio-indicators of the health of the environment, marine and terrestrial,"

"[T]he list of threats is phenomenal". ...habitat loss, human disturbance, competition from commercial fisheries, oil spills, marine pollution and predation by foxes and dogs. Finally, there's the big one: global warming.

...[M]any wildfowl no longer needed to migrate as far as the UK from places like Greenland and Siberia because of warmer winters.

Numbers of seven regular visitors, including the shelduck, mallard and turnstone, are declining, it warned.

But the overall number of waterbirds wintering in the UK has doubled since the late 1970s, a report adds.

The State of the UK's Birds 2006 report, says in particular the number of wading birds including the black-tailed godwit and the avocet, had increased markedly, mainly due to action by conservationists.

Extreme weather events likely associated with climate change-- for example the recent British floods -- also have an effect on avian species.

Bitterns are counted by the number of males that are "booming" – making the low, far-carrying call that attracts the female. Within the past 20 years there were as few as 11 booming males in all of the country, but strenuous conservation efforts had this spring brought that up to more than 50.

Then disaster struck. After 2007's wonderfully warm April, cold and rain swept in during the early May Bank Holiday weekend. At Minsmere, the flagship reserve of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in Suffolk, five bittern nests were washed away, and the young birds died in the low temperatures. "It was cold and wet right across the bittern's breeding range," said Mark Avery, the RSPB's director of conservation. "One wet cold weekend dealt a devastating blow to one of Britain's rarest birds."

But it wasn't just bitterns. Two of Britain's most rapidly-declining farmland birds, the lapwing and the grey partridge, have also suffered terribly from the washout summer. Paradoxically, the lapwings were hard hit by the hot April, because the dried ground was too hard for them to dig out the invertebrates to feed their chicks. But then they were dealt a double whammy by the downpours which followed, and when rivers such as the Severn burst their banks in areas such as Gloucestershire, many nests in the riverside meadows were washed away and the chicks drowned.

The effect of the cold and wet on the grey partridge, which from being a common and familiar bird has declined by nearly 90 per cent in Britain as a whole and is now extinct in many parts of the countryside, was so lamentable that the Game Conservancy Trust issued a special warning notice about what had happened. "Urgent conservation action needs to be taken by all those with a responsibility for managing the British countryside," it said.

Birds are wonderful creatures, bringing pleasure with their grace and their songs. As a casual hobby, I greatly enjoy bird-watching. I find it very sad and disturbing that humankind are eliminating a great variety of birds with our selfish exploitation of the Earth. All the birds probably won't be eliminated; nonetheless, we will be leaving a poorer world for our children, lacking some of the simple pleasures that we now enjoy. As a civilization, we need to get our act together and preserve what we can, before it is too late. We are the cause, whether through land use, pollution, habitat destruction or global warming. We need to be the solution.

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