Saving threatened habitats worldwide

Birds plummet to extinction

28 March, 2013 - 10:45 -- John Burton
Zoological illustration of Passenger Pigeon (Columba Migratoria), by John James Audubon

World Land Trust (WLT) often collaborates with American Bird Conservancy (ABC) and a recent ABC newsletter focuses on the declining numbers of shorebirds (or ‘waders’ to those on the eastern side of the Atlantic).

ABC’s report should be sounding serious alarm bells. The Eskimo Curlew, like the Passenger Pigeon, was once one of the most numerous birds in the world. The Passenger Pigeon became extinct when a lone female died in 1914. The Eskimo Curlew may have lingered on for a few years after the last one was shot in Barbados in 1963, but is now almost certainly extinct.

Almost everywhere, shorebirds are declining. The Spoon-billed Sandpiper is heading dramatically towards extinction, while the number of shorebirds wintering in Delaware Bay (one of the great wintering sites in North America) has declined by 80 per cent.

Semi-palmated Sandpiper numbers have crashed from 1.8 million in 1982, to 350,000 on their main wintering grounds in South America.

Concerted efforts reversed the alarming decline of birds of prey in the 1960s (largely due to pesticide poisoning), but whether or not it is possible to halt the decline in wading birds is largely unknown.

I rather doubt that these declines can be halted because both the winter feeding grounds, and the stopping off areas, are now so threatened. Changes in land use present the greatest risk and, increasingly, coastal marshes and wetlands where birds stopover or winter are being drained and reclaimed for human use.

Like the Passenger Pigeon and the Eskimo Curlew, birds that live in large concentrations, may not be able to survive once their numbers drop below a certain level.

Unfortunately there’s little that WLT can do about this particular issue. Estuaries and shores are usually controlled by governments, and it is these wetlands that are vital for shorebirds.

However the Trust can do something about the huge number of bird species living in rainforests and other inland habitats. And while there are many institutions, agencies and charities researching and discussing the issues, World Land Trust is one of the very few organisations that can actually measure positive outcomes: hundreds of thousands of acres of critical habitats saved.

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