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Let's Hatch a Plan to Save the World's Birds Before it's Too Late

Posted: 07/10/2013 8:12 am

We can't live without birds. Beyond being fascinating and beautiful, they play a crucial role in keeping the world habitable for all life, including people. They disperse seeds, pollinate plants, control insects, provide food and are indicators of the overall health of ecosystems. They also create recreational and economic opportunities, through the immense popularity of birdwatching.

So we should be concerned about the findings of the report, "State of the world's birds: indicators for our changing world": One in eight -- or 1,313 -- species of Earth's birds is in danger of disappearing.

"The status of the world's birds is deteriorating, with species slipping ever faster towards extinction," notes the assessment by Birdlife International, a global partnership of conservation organizations. This represents rapid acceleration of a troubling trend: 151 bird species are believed to have gone extinct since 1500.

But the study, released at Birdlife International's 2013 Congress in Ottawa, offers hope:

"An annual investment of US$4 billion, used wisely, could improve the status of all known threatened species and virtually halt human-driven extinctions. A further US$76 billion could effectively protect and manage all known sites of global conservation significance. These sums are insignificant in comparison with both the size of the global economy (roughly US$70 trillion per year) and an estimate of the total value of ecosystem services delivered by nature each year (US$22-US$74 trillion)."

Many threatened birds are common species, including turtle doves, meadowlarks, barn swallows and purple martins. In Canada, insectivores, grassland birds and Arctic shorebirds have been declining rapidly since 1970, all because of human activity. But conservation efforts, including regulating pesticides such as DDT, have helped some raptor and waterfowl populations bounce back.

Sadly, we're to blame for the current plight of birds. The report shows industrial-scale agriculture, logging and invasive species are the gravest immediate dangers. It also concludes climate change is an "emerging and increasingly serious threat to species" and "often exacerbates existing threats." Among other problems, a warming planet changes migration and nesting schedules, hindering birds' ability to find insects to eat. It also damages habitat.

One solution for safeguarding bird populations is to ensure habitats critical to their survival -- known as Important Bird Areas, or IBAs -- are protected, through legislation if necessary. That doesn't mean shutting out human activity, just managing these areas in ways that allow birds to survive and thrive.

As the report shows, investing in conservation comes with benefits beyond helping birds. The more than 12,000 IBAs identified worldwide offer valuable ecosystem services, such as regulating climate and air quality, purifying water and preventing floods, maintaining genetic diversity, providing food and medicines and creating recreation and tourism opportunities.

Education is another component of protecting birds and all threatened plants and animals. As we better understand our connection to nature, the importance of biodiversity and the value of services healthy ecosystems provide, we'll make conservation and biodiversity higher priorities in our decision-making, which will lead to wiser development.

While the BirdLife study identifies climate change as a major threat, it also notes the challenge in balancing environmental factors in energy-project development. Critics oppose wind power because of potential harm to birds, but bird deaths from windmills are minimal compared to those caused by fossil fuels, climate change, pesticides, highrise buildings, automobile collisions and house cats. A National University of Singapore study shows fossil fuel power generation kills 17 times as many birds per gigawatt-hour of electricity as wind power. And wind farm problems can be overcome with proper siting and improved design. In the Rift Valley/Red Sea flyway, an important area for birds migrating between Eurasia and Africa, BirdLife developed research materials and a web-based tool to map flight patterns and identify places where wind installations should be avoided to keep birds safer.

Plummeting bird populations reflect the state of the global environment -- but it's not too late to do something. As Leon Bennun, BirdLife's director of science, information and policy, says, "Effective nature conservation is affordable and it works. It's time to make it happen. The result will be a world that is in every way wealthier and healthier -- and that remains diverse and beautiful too."

We need birds. Let's do all we can to avert an extinction catastrophe.

Written with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation Communications Manager Ian Hanington.

Learn more at www.davidsuzuki.org.

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  • Mice

    It seems strange to worry about the disappearance of animals many people consider pests. Nevertheless, dozens of mouse subspecies are going extinct around the world. For example, the <a href="http://articles.latimes.com/2012/nov/09/local/la-me-pendleton-mouse-20121110" target="_blank">Pacific pocket mouse</a> is sitting on some of the most desirable coastal real estate in California. Fortunately, this little guy is protected by conservation regulations strong enough to deter developers from pursuing building projects in coastal lands worth millions of dollars, causing projects to be put on hold or completely shut down to insure the health and safety of its habitat.

  • Monkeys

    Hunting and habitat loss are two reasons Spider monkeys in Central America are disappearing. <a href="http://animals.nationalgeographic.com/animals/mammals/spider-monkey/" target="_blank">Spider monkeys</a> require large areas of forest for a healthy habitat and have been subject to population decline due to deforestation in areas of Costa Rica, Panama, El Salvador and Belize. Spider monkeys have a slow reproductive cycle and are no longer living in areas where they were commonly found in the early 1900s. <em><strong>CORRECTION:</strong> A previous version of this slide showed a squirrel monkey.</em>

  • Wolves

    Wolves, the largest cousin of the canine family, are a very important part of the cycle of life. North America's Gray wolves are what biologists call "keystone predators," meaning they are an essential element in their ecosystem. <a href="http://animals.nationalgeographic.com/animals/mammals/wolf/?source=A-to-Z" target="_blank">Gray wolves</a> are hearty and highly adaptable, but due to poaching and habitat loss across America, their numbers have fallen alarmingly low.

  • Armadillos

    Closely related to sloths and anteaters, armadillos are a unique species with around 20 different subspecies. One variety, the <a href="http://www.earthsendangered.com/profile-11.html" target="_blank">Giant armadillo</a>, is close to extinction in their wild habitats of South America. Armadillos live in burrows they dig in the ground, so preservation of their habitat is essential to their continued health and quality of life. Overhunting and urbanization of habitat are causes of their decreased numbers to date.

  • Corals

    Many people don't even think of corals as living creatures, but they are key to the survival of entire ecosystems. <a href="http://www.fau.edu/facilities/ehs/info/elkhorn_staghorn_corals.php" target="_blank">Elkhorn and Staghorn stony coral</a> species are the first coral organisms to be added to the Endangered Species Act and are currently classified as "threatened." Staghorn coral, or <em>Acropora cervicornis</em>, has lost 80 to 90 percent of its reef populations around the world in the past few decades.

  • Horses

    How is it possible that horses are endangered? <a href="http://animals.nationalgeographic.com/animals/mammals/przewalskis-horse/?source=A-to-Z" target="_blank">Przewalski's horses</a>, an equine subspecies found in Mongolia, were determined extinct in the wild in 1966. Scientists have been able to reintroduce the species to its native habitat in recent years, but the free-range population is only a little more than 300. The total number of Przewalski's horses in existence today is approximately 1,500.

  • Alligators

    Residing in North American wetlands, the <a href="http://www.esa.org/esablog/ecology-in-policy/the-american-alligator-and-its-importance-to-the-florida-everglades/" target="_blank">American Alligator</a> is listed as a lower-risk endangered species. Conservation efforts have helped alligator populations rise in recent years, but they are still being hunted for skin and meat across the southeast.

  • Sheep

    Despite their massive curling horns, Bighorn sheep aren't safe from extinction. One of the three sheep subspecies, the <a href="http://www.biologicaldiversity.org/species/mammals/Sierra_Nevada_bighorn_sheep/index.html" target="_blank">Sierra Nevada Bighorn sheep</a>, is currently listed as endangered. In the early 1900s, as many as 2 million Bighorn sheep could be found in California and other regions of the U.S. Now fewer than 70,000 live in those areas.

  • Chinchillas

    Chinchillas, the soft-furred rodents commonly found in pet stores, are disappearing in their natural habitats. Up to 90 percent of <a href="http://www.wildchinchillas.org/" target="_blank">wild chinchillas</a> have been lost in the past 20 years. Unfortunately, their pelts have been in high demand for decades. Being listed as an endangered species helped stop commercial trade of wild chinchilla fur, but they are still pursued by poachers in South America.

  • Hawks

    The hawk is one of the most common birds found in North America, so it is shocking that any of its subspecies would be in danger of extinction. However, one subspecies, the Puerto Rican Broad-Winged hawk, is listed as endangered wherever it is found. Their numbers in their native habitat have been estimated as few as 100 birds. <em>(Pictured: <a href="http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/106003502/0" target="_blank">The Broad-Winged hawk,</em> Buteo platypterus</a><em>) </em>

  • Ferrets

    The Black-Footed ferret is one of the most endangered animals in America. The Black-Footed ferret's diet consists almost entirely of prairie dogs, which unfortunately have decreased significantly in number since the early 1900s, when populations were targeted by farmers and land owners who viewed them as pests. By the 1970,s Black-Footed ferrets were assumed to be extinct in the wild, but in the 1980s a colony of ferrets was found in Wyoming and were heavily monitored. The later generations of the ferrets were captured and placed in a protective breeding program after plague and canine distemper killed the majority of their colony.

  • Zebras

    Zebras may be a common sight in zoos around the U.S., but they are rapidly declining in their native habitats. A subspecies of zebra found in Africa, Grevy's zebra, was listed "threatened" in 1979. As the largest and wildest of the three zebra subspecies, Grevy's zebra populations are decreasing at an alarming rate due to habitat fragmentation and agricultural livestock overgrazing.

  • Cockatoos

    Salmon-Crested cockatoos were listed as a threatened species in 2011 wherever they occur in the world. The Fish and Wildlife Service listed this subspecies of cockatoos in danger of extinction due to illegal logging and pet-trade trapping in areas of Indonesia.

  • Ocelots

    Ocelots, twice the size of a domestic cat found in Central America and North America, are known for their beautiful dappled coat, which is coveted by hunters. Until 1996, Ocelots were on the whole listed as a threatened species, but were recently reranked as "least concern" by the 2008 IUCN Red List. One of the 11 subspecies is currently listed as endangered in North America.

  • Snakes

    Garden-variety garter snakes are very common, but in California one subspecies has been listed as endangered since 1969. Pollution, urban development and pet-trade capture are thought to be causes of population decline over the past century.

  • Deer

    Twenty-three subspecies of deer are listed as endangered and are disappearing from the world. Most notably, Key deer, found only in the Florida Keys, were almost completely eradicated by the mid-1900s. Their populations have increased to upward of 800 individuals in recent years, but more than 50 deer are killed by drivers every year, accounting for almost 70 percent of annual deaths.

  • Butterflies

    Pesticides and urbanization are a couple reasons butterflies are becoming more scarce in North America. In fact, 27 types of butterflies are threatened or endangered in the world. <em>(Pictured: <a href="http://www.biologicaldiversity.org/species/invertebrates/Miami_blue_butterfly/index.html" target="_blank">Miami Blue butterfly</a>)</em>

  • Snails

    Just because the snail is able to carry his home on his back doesn't mean he's protected from extinction. There are over 80 snail subspecies listed as threatened or endangered through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Snails are in danger due to climate change, pollution and urban development. <em>(Pictured: A <a href="http://www.doc.govt.nz/conservation/native-animals/invertebrates/powelliphanta-snails/" target="_blank">Powelliphanta snail)</a></em>

  • Bats

    Bulmer's Fruit Bats, found in New Guinea, are a critically endangered subspecies. Their populations were healthy in the 1970s when they were targeted by hunters. Within 10 years almost all Bulmer's Fruit Bats had been destroyed due to habitat destruction, and they were listed as critically endangered by 1984. <em>(Pictured: A <a href="http://www.arkive.org/natterers-bat/myotis-nattereri/" target="_blank">Natterer's bat</em>, Myotis nattereri<em>)</a></em>

  • Macaws

    Macaws can be big or small, but they comprise the world's largest parrots. Unfortunately, three macaw subspecies are in danger of extinction. Loss of habitat, hunting and illegal trapping are causing these macaw varieties — the Glaucous, Little Blue and Idigo — to disappear. Now, it is estimated that only 3,000 hyacinth macaws (pictured above) can be found in the wild.

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