Where are all the birds?


It seems that not a week goes by without multiple news stories regarding declining birds populations, be it migratory birds, farmland birds or birds of prey. Indeed today we were all greeted with apocalyptic headlines stating hundreds of millions birds including our common garden sparrows have vanished in the past thirty years. With constant prophetic news like this it begs the question, where are all the birds?

A new study led by Dr Robert Inger, an ecologist at the University of Exeter examined populations of 144 “common” species and made startling discoveries. Birds still commonly seen in gardens across the UK, such as house sparrows and starlings have seen their population levels drastically cut. In the last thirty years the house sparrows population has fallen by 62% (147 million birds).

Many will undoubtedly beg indifference to the drop in house sparrow numbers as they can still easily and frequently be viewed on our bird feeders and tables or in our parks. However sudden population decline in common species is not something to be taken lightly. This year marks the centenary of the extinction of what was possibly the most abundant bird in the world; the Passenger Pigeon.

Numbering in its billions, historical documents claimed passenger pigeons were able to darken the sky for hours with their sheer gargantuan populations. Yet their large numbers were unable to save them from human exploitation, as they hunted to extinction in the mere blink of an eye. In just forty years, the passenger pigeon had gone from billions of birds to none.

Before the passenger pigeon, nobody thought it was possible for such an abundant animal to vanish from the face of the Earth. Although the population declines aren’t as bad there is almost a parallel bleakness with the rapid fall in numbers of our own birds. There is one significant difference today however, we have a far greater ability to understand and reverse the threats to our birds.

In contrast to an 80% (350 million) population drop for common species, rare birds increased by 21,000. The brave conservation efforts to create a population of approximately 1,800 breeding pairs of Red Kites from just 1 is testament to this and evidence that we create effective conservation programmes for our birds.

The creation of conservation programmes is dependent on understanding what is creating the population decline. The causes of this can range from a shift in land use leading to a loss of habitat, disease and even your domestic cat. Another problem for conservation will be a lack of funding. Conservation funding is already biased toward large mammals such as pandas and tigers. The money which is presented towards birds will most likely those deemed to be the rarest. It will be a lot harder for conservation charities to garner interest in saving sparrows in comparison to saving red kites.

That said, gardens birds are often enjoyed by all. They provide a much needed link between mankind and nature in an often urbanized environment. These reported declines should serve as a warning across the United Kingdom, that it is still possible a species as common as a sparrow could still disappear just like the Dodo or the Passenger Pigeon.

For More Information:

Hundreds of Millions of Birds Disappear in 30 Years (The Independent): http://www.independent.co.uk/environment/nature/hundreds-of-millions-of-birds-have-disappeared-in-30-years-9834342.html

Garden Birds in Alarming Decline (The Telegraph) http://www.telegraph.co.uk/earth/wildlife/11204029/Garden-birds-in-alarming-decline.html

Common Bird Species Facing Decline in Europe (The Guardian) http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/nov/02/common-bird-species-sparrow-skylark-decline-europe

Project Passenger Pigeon http://passengerpigeon.org/


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Emily Stewart
Owner of Inspirewildlife - a site dedicated to sharing positive conservation news stories from around the world. Zoo Management Graduate from University of Chester
Emily Stewart

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