State of the World’s Birds

by David A. Manuwal

Varied Thrush
Varied Thrush

On September 19, 2019 an article in the journal Science was published that sent shockwaves through the conservation community. The report indicated that almost 3 billion birds had disappeared since 1970. A year earlier in 2018, another independent less well-known report was published by Birdlife International, a conservation group based in the United Kingdom. Compiling data from various sources from all over the world, the report showed very similar trends in global bird populations as the article in Science this year.

 Much of the information on birds is derived from the Red List and Red List Index published by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The major areas of concern outlined in the report include 1)important bird and biodiversity areas in the world; 2) globally, birds continue to decline and become extinct; 3) some species and bird groups are declining very rapidly; 4) certain ecosystems are in peril; 5) human actions are driving the biodiversity crisis; 6) deforestation and unsustainable logging; 7) catastrophic impact of alien species; 8) overexploitation; 9) unsustainable and poorly planned infrastructure development; 10) seabirds are in serious danger from fisheries bycatch; 11) climate change already having negative impacts on some birds; and 12) human overconsumption of natural resources.

It is worth providing some detail here about forest birds, since two-thirds of the world’s birds occupy forests. In the tropical forests of South America and Southeast Asia, bird species tend to be highly specialized and have small population levels. Deforestation and unsustainable forestry is particularly rampant in these regions as well as sub-Saharan Africa. In parts of Southeast Asia, there is now so little primary forest left that many forests will soon be logged for the second or third time. This is especially concerning as these regions support considerable numbers of forest dependent bird, mammal, and amphibian species, including forest specialists that are entirely reliant on forests for their survival.

Despite the rather bleak picture of global bird decline, the report indicates that bird conservation is working in some areas. Since 2000, 25 bird species have been brought back from the brink of extinction and down-listed from the IUCN Critically Endangered category. Major efforts have been made at protecting some of the most important bird habitats and sites of high biodiversity. Many important environments that have been degraded, are now being restored to natural conditions. Major efforts are being made throughout the world in eradicating invasive plants and animals, especially on islands. There are numerous successful target species recovery programs. In several dire conservation situations, birds have been removed from the wild, captively-bred and reintroduced into improved habitat. One notable example is the Guam Rail which was nearly extirpated by the introduced brown tree snake. In many regions of the world, birds are overexploited to satisfy the enormous caged-bird trade. Substantial numbers of songbirds are killed in southern Europe for human consumption.

The problem, of course, is that our conservation efforts must greatly increase just to keep pace with the amount of  population and species loss as well as habitat degradation and destruction.

What to do? The key actions needed to conserve birds and biodiversity include 1) education and raising awareness of conservation problems; 2) provide economic and livelihood incentives; 3) influence policy and legislation; 4) campaign for conservation issues; and 5) use the best available science for conservation. Just as politics is used against conservation efforts, conservationists should actively support politicians who create policies and actions for the good of the planet. We can start right here in the Flathead.