A new study warns of the “greatest wave of extinctions since dinosaurs disappeared 65 million years ago.” The Worldwatch Institute reports bird populations “around the world are plummeting faster than ever before.”
Humans get most of the blame for putting birds at risk. The Worldwatch report – Winged Messengers: The Decline of Birds – says the main problems are population growth, loss of habitat and climate change. Howard Youth is the author of the study.
He says, "In the humanized world, birds are facing a lot of threats that would not normally be there – primary of which is habitat destruction and fragmentation. The cutting into bits of habitats into small pockets, which is fragmenting bird populations, setting them apart genetically. In addition there are the problems of pollution and exotic species being introduced, as well as over hunting."
The Worldwatch Institute report estimates between 50-thousand and 170-thousand square kilometers of forest are lost each year. While replanting programs offset some of the losses, the report says they are “no substitute for more complex natural forests.”
“Roads and power lines frequently cut through forests…providing pathways for predators, competitors and exotic plants.” The report also says once roads exist, illegal hunting and capture increase. It estimates nearly one-third of the world’s parrot species are threatened with extinction, in part, because of the pet trade.
Mr. Youth says in all, twelve percent of the world’s bird population – or about 12-hundred species – face extinction in the next century. He says, “Birds are valuable environmental indicators because they warn us of impending problems through their waning or flourishing populations.”
He says, "Each of these when they are knocked out of the rung of the wheel of fortune, if you will, sets our natural eco-systems a little bit more askew. So even if they don’t directly impact human lives, indirectly they do impact our world and the natural cycles."
Chemicals – especially oil spills – threaten seabirds, while pesticides kill millions of birds on land and water. For example, the pesticide DDT, which has been banned in the United States for many years, is blamed for the deaths of hundreds of pelicans in the southern US state of Florida. The chemical had leached from the soil of a farm abandoned decades ago.
Mr. Youth says while some birds, like the Red Billed Aquila, are considered pests themselves because they destroy crops, most are vital to nature.
He says, "It doesn’t take long to look at a swallow snapping up insects all day long and figure out that this is a bird that spends its entire life catching insects on the wing. Or hummingbirds that pollinate flowers, many of which are useful to us and important to us in our agriculture. Or orioles pollinating flowers as they go about their daily business. In each habitat around the world, hornbills are one of the primary seed dispersers in equatorial African forests. And as other seed dispersers, such as elephants and primates, are being wiped out these birds will carry on in areas where forests remain and help spread the future forests."
The author of “Winged Messengers: The Decline of Birds” says the answer is conservation, the importance of which can vary among political leaders. He says conservation should be part of community planning to ensure woodlands are protected. He says birds are indicators of whether mankind is harming the environment. But he says they also are a source of inspiration and a link to nature.