May 13 was designated as the World Migratory Bird Day by the United Nations Environment Program through two intergovernmental treaties that it presides over, the Agreement on the Conservation of African-Eurasian Migratory Waterbirds (AEWA) and the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS). Since 2006 the World Migratory Bird Day is held every second weekend of May. The slogan of this year’s campaign was “Their Future is Our Future- A Healthy Planet for Migratory Birds and People,” The countries observing the day will focus on “Sustainable development for wildlife and people”.
Many animals typically tend to inhabit one region. But many others migrate to different parts of the world. This is most common among birds, because their ability to fly makes long-distance travel easier and crossing of geographical barriers such as mountains and oceans possible. Their reasons for migrating are usually due to the environment becoming less suitable. This is often because of a change of season, with birds in the northern hemisphere going south. Birds can leave an area because the food supply decreases. They also migrate when they need to produce young and regard another place to be better for breeding. Countless species of birds travel vast distances during their migrations, with many of them traveling across the world. The bird with the longest migration is the Arctic tern, which every year travels from the Arctic to the Antarctic and vice versa (that is because while it is constant sunlight in one of these two regions, there is constant darkness in the other, and the tern can get to have summer all year round by switching hemispheres).
What makes migratory birds special is that they are global species. Birds that regularly make long journeys are important in that they can make anywhere on Earth their habitat. This allows them to be abundant and exploit certain environments more than stationary animals can. For example, if an environment is abundant in resources at some times and deficient in others, animals that cannot move in and out of there quickly will not prosper there as much as animals which can. Land animals are capable of migration but flying animals like birds can do it much quicker, farther, and with less restriction, allowing to them to move in and out of vast areas of the Earth which fluctuate in their bounty, such as the entire northern latitudes of the planet.
As the planet in general is the habitat of migratory birds, they are very important for the environment and provide essential ecological services. Migratory birds often have a bad reputation among humans. For example, they were falsely blamed for the Avian flu pandemic and farmers often think of them as pests, eating grains. But migratory birds also benefit people by eating other pests that eat agricultural produce, such as insects and rodents. They help in dispersing seeds, fostering the cultivation of fruit plants, and are important pollinators. Finally, migratory birds also serve as global bioindicators.
Ecologists often assess what is happening to a certain environment by looking at what is happening to living things which are particularly sensitive to environmental changes. What happens to migratory birds can tell us what is happening around the world.
At present, the plight of the migratory bird is a worrying story. Migratory birds face a lot of threats, many of which are particularly associated with their migratory lifestyle. Humanity is harming environments all across the planet, so that there are few pristine places left for birds to live in. During their migrations, birds are very vulnerable because human beings have made their migrations harder and more dangerous in a variety of ways.
Traveling long distances is not an easy task. Many birds stop frequently and briefly rest and feed in certain habitats, known as stopovers, along their migration route. Their migration routes, which tend to be fixed, are known as flyways and most migratory birds travel along the same general routes on the planet. For example, many migratory birds do not like to travel over stretches of water and so those that travel between Africa and Eurasia usually travel into the Middle East and through Israel and the Suez Peninsula. Many birds also like to stop at the same general spots, creating world stopovers.
Stopovers and the rigors of migration are where birds are at their most vulnerable. Habitat destruction is one of the main threats to migratory birds. Birds that migrate without relying entirely on stopovers need to eat a lot to store energy for the trip but they can be prevented from doing this if the environment they are preparing to leave is deficient in food supply. Birds suffer the same way if the habitats that they use as stopovers are being destroyed. If birds are not properly nourished, they become more likely to suffer starvation and exhaustion along their trip. They can be unable to finish the journey and have to stay where they did not intend to and they could even starve to death. Birds that suffer from exhaustion are more likely to become disoriented and stray off their path or collide with objects such as other birds and buildings. Habitats can be degraded by humans deforesting, building cities, and agricultural development. Wetlands, which are the preferred stopovers for most birds, are among the environments most likely to suffer degradation as these are often drained by people.
Because migratory birds congregate en masse in a limited number of places as stopovers, they are vulnerable to many things, such as disease and predation. Stopover and flyover areas are hotspots for bird hunting and birds are often hunted to the point of endangerment at these places. Some stopovers are in impoverished or food-insecure areas where people need to hunt wild animals to sustain themselves. Stopovers can be filled with unnaturally large numbers of predators, such as cats, that can kill large numbers of birds.
While flying, migratory birds are vulnerable to many things that human beings build. When windows reflect the sky or trees, birds sometimes mistake them for the sky or trees and try to fly into them, which often results in them dying or being injured when they hit the glass. Thus, migratory birds are put greatly at risk if major cities are located along flyways, especially if they have skyscrapers.
Antennae towers and wind turbines are other forms of construction which birds are prone to colliding with. Finally, the artificial lights of cities, especially on tall towers, can disorient birds and make them more likely to collide with something. They tend to be attracted to lights and so fly towards the buildings.
Climate change is one of the major threats to migratory birds. It disrupts the traditional schedules and ranges of migratory birds. Many migratory birds are very sensitive to the timing of the availability of food compared to the timing of their breeding activities and suffer if there is a mismatch between the two events, which is likely to happen with changing temperatures. Climate change can lead to the destruction of stopover habitats. In addition to all this, climate change can result in a greater frequency of weather disasters such as hurricanes which harm birds or disrupt their migration flights.
What makes the issue of protecting migratory birds challenging is that it is international in scope. Almost all migratory birds have destination habitats, stopovers, and flyovers that span different countries. This means that conservation efforts to help them have to cross borders as well. And depending on the countries that have to be involved, this may not always be easy. Many intergovernmental treaties have been created to maintain cooperation between nations on the issues, the biggest of which are CMS and AEWA. Many countries are not party to these two treaties, however. Four of those which are not party to CMS are Canada, the United States, Russia, and China.
Protecting migratory birds and their journeys hinges mostly on the flyways and stopovers where they concentrate. The limited amount of areas in the world to focus on can make this conservation goal easy. What we basically need to do is set aside stopovers as conservation zones. Wetlands are the environment most in need of conservation. They have a lot of other important functions in addition to hosting migratory birds. People often use wetlands for many things, such as water purification and agriculture. Measures to reduce the poaching of birds at stopovers and flyways are very important, as is the reduction of unnatural predation. For example, cat populations should be removed from stopover sites or pet cats should be kept inside during migration season. As for disease, if migratory birds truly do promote avian flu and other diseases, then the solution to the problem is to prevent the prevalence of the disease among them. Ways must be sought of doing this at stopover sites.
On the issue of artificial lights disorienting birds, some major cities organize a lights-out campaign in which all non-important lights on state buildings are kept switched off during peak migration season.
Stopover areas can be provided with food and other things that birds need. Ordinary people can do this themselves and so turn urban areas into habitats for migratory birds. Bird feeders and water can be put out everywhere. This is an effective short-term strategy for bird conservation, keeping birds provided for until their habitats can be restored, but it may also end up being a long-term solution. In a changing world, perhaps a good way to preserve wildlife is to create new situations to suit their needs in addition to trying to keep things the way they always were.
In addition to stopover habitats, the permanent habitats of migratory birds also need to be protected. It is no use migrating if they cannot store up enough fat reserves for the journey or if they arrive at their destination and find it is not what it should be. That is where preserving the natural environments of the world comes into play and is ultimately what we should be working towards in migratory bird conservation.
Migratory bird conservation is one of those issues which can bring various different countries together, which can bring the world in general together. But there are always problems in bringing countries together. Natural phenomena like the migration of wild birds always transcends any manmade borders or political constructs, but our collective attempts to safeguard these features of nature can be hampered by our political, economic, or social differences. The majority of countries may be willing to work alongside others in protecting the environment, but there could always be a country that is not so conducive to cooperation and whose territory is important for migratory birds.
A country may not be environmentally-conscious and be unwilling to exert effort or make sacrifices on behalf of wild animals such as by restricting development and leaving aside certain areas for wildlife. A country may be suffering from conditions that make it difficult for people inside to focus on conservation or work in conservation, especially in the area of habitat preservation. A country could be underdeveloped or dealing with severe poverty. It could be unstable and conflict-ridden. Finally, animosity, distrust, or isolation between nations can hamper the international issue of bird conservation
Take the example of North Korea, which lies along the East Asian-Australasian Flyway which more than five million birds use every year, usually in moving between Siberia and Australasia. North Korea is extremely hostile to the world’s most prosperous nations, such as the United States, Japan, and Australia. Outside groups will be extremely limited in their ability to come inside and conserve the bird habitats and the North Korean government is not likely to listen to what the international community tells it to do regarding them. One way of getting around this is through the use of buffer states. North Korea is friendly towards China and Russia, which sometime cooperate with the west.
Despite such issues, the conservation of migratory birds, and other environmental issues that cross borders, is also an opportunity to foster cooperation and friendship between nations. It makes people from different countries, from different cultures and places, come together, interact with each other, visit each other’s homelands, and help each other. This promotes cross-cultural harmony and awareness. And if these different countries have differences with each other, political, religious, ideological, or otherwise, they may learn to put their differences aside if they consider working together on environmental issues. This is because they will learn that no matter what they think of each other, all countries and all human beings live on the same planet and are provided for by the natural environments of the same planet. This is what we all have in common, that we have the same home, and the most important priority for us is to take care of the environment that sustains us in order that we may continue to live and prosper. That need transcends all the little disputes that we have and requires that we all work together and live in harmony. Migratory birds may be the best way to encourage all nations and all clans to become aware of this, for when we look at how they are inhabitants of the whole world, we realize that the human race is too.
The theme of this year’s Migratory Bird Day, “Their Future is our Future- A Healthy Planet for Migratory Birds and People,” and ultimately, it may prove to be about us just as much as the birds.
*Shahzeb Khan is an Islamabad-based environment activist, blogger, documentary maker, writer, and co-director of Pakistan’s People Led Disaster Management, www.ppldm.net. He blogs at www.jshahzebkhan.wordpress.com. His work as a youth leader has been commended by the former US President Barack Obama for Outstanding Achievement in Environmental Stewardship.