Where are the Migrants?

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Being a bird enthusiast or “twitcher” as we are known, I stay regularly informed on bird migrations and patterns. What has been apparent over the last couple of decades is the decline in certain migrating species. This is particularly apparent in species that visit us from Europe for our Summer months.In research conducted and published in the journal of Biological Conservation by RSPB (BirdLife in the UK), it was shown that 54 per cent of the 121 long-distance migrants studied have declined or become extinct in many parts of Europe since 1970. The study also compared migrants and resident birds with similar characteristics, and in almost every case, the migrant fared worse. There are a number of reasons that birds migrate, and most have to do with food availability, breeding locations and climate conditions. Because of this, the migrant’s demise has been attributed to a few things by the RSPB (BirdLife in the UK):Climate change: air temperatures are changing and warmer springs are causing insects to breed earlier. Resident birds may be surviving winters better and, alongside insects, are adapting more quickly to climate change. Long-distance migrants flying from Africa cannot detect the temperature increase that heralds an early spring in Europe and may arrive too late to use the best nest sites and catch the insect food glut on which their young depend.Drought and agriculture in the Sahel: the Sahel borders the southern Sahara, stretching from the Atlantic Ocean in the west to the Horn of Africa in the east. It covers 1.6 billion hectares and includes regions of 12 countries. Long term drought and agricultural intensification, including the widespread use of pesticides and fertilisers, has turned much of the Sahel into desert. The area is the first feeding opportunity for migrants crossing the Sahara.Desertification: the Sahara is now much bigger than it used to be, also because of drought. Migrating birds must fly over this desert in one flight, to reach their winter homes. The birds may be unable to fly further in one go and if so, many will not cope with the longer journey.Pest control: huge amounts of pesticides are now used to kill locusts and protect crops in Africa, and may be killing birds as well.Another cause which was not mentioned is the illegal hunting of birds that occurs in some European countries. In Italy, it is well known that bird hunting still goes on indiscriminately, and as such lots of species are being decimated in former range strongholds. This is an area where we can cause an immediate change, as laws can be implemented and prosecutions made.

The trailer for 'World Migratory Bird Day', a campaign that raises awareness about the need for protection of migratory birds and their habitats.

On a recent trip to the lowveld, one of the species that I did notice was not present in any large numbers as before, were the European Rollers. These species follow the direct route from Europe to Africa, and the reasons above may be the exact cause for the drop in numbers. Birdlife international and the RSPB (BirdLife in the UK) have reported that the European Roller declined in Europe by more than 20 per cent from 1970 to 1990 and by another 20 per cent in the 1990s. This has continued in the 2000’s and the exact percentage of drop is not known. The rollers breed in Europe in their summer months and over winter in Africa. They are generally widely distributed, but now there are even reports of extinctions that have occurred in Slovenia, Czech Republic and Estonia. Further research will have be done on the numbers and actual statistics involved, but in the meantime Birdlife international has implemented policies that aim to increase and stabilise the population by 2020. This applies not only to the Rollers, but many other migrants with a similar plight.Let’s hope the passionate people involved in the research and policy implementation can make a difference and we once again see these beautiful birds in high numbers.

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