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Twice a year, billions of migratory birds embark on incredible journeys across the globe. These birds follow specific routes called flyways, which act as super-highways in the sky. Their journey takes them south for the winter and back north in the spring to breed.

Migratory birds reach impressive speeds, heights, and distances – but their travels are full of risk and danger. And human activities have made these journeys more treacherous and exhausting for birds.

Illegal killing of birds

In the Mediterranean alone, more than 25 million migratory birds are illegally killed every year. Some end up on plates, but in most cases, birds are hunted just for the sport of it, both inside and outside the allowed hunting season. Illegal methods, such as using electronic calling devices to lure birds into traps, are often combined with banned ways of catching birds, such as with mist nets and lime sticks, resulting in slow, gruesome deaths. Birds of prey, such as the rapidly declining Egyptian Vulture (Neophron percnopterus), often die from eating poisoned bait laid out for wolves, foxes, and lynx. Although leaving out poisoned bait is illegal, this practice is still widely spread in countries such as Portugal, Spain, Cyprus, and Albania to protect livestock and crops or boost the populations of game animal.

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Farming against nature

The intensification of agriculture is the number one driver of bird population declines worldwide. The industrial way of most farming not only eradicates nature by turning habitats into fields, but the heavy use of pesticides is wiping out insect populations, causing birds to starve, and poisoning water sources. All this can cause a decrease in the production, fertility, or hatchability of eggs, among other health risks for bird populations. The impact of pesticides on migrating birds is probably greatest for storks, cranes, harriers, and falcons, as they frequently feed during stopovers.

Habitat loss and human development

Everyone needs a break – even birds. Stopover sites refer to spots where migratory birds can rest for a few hours or days before continuing their journey along the flyways. Deforestation, wetland drainage, and urban development are just some examples of how human activities are destroying crucial stopover sites and habitats that birds, and nature at large, depend on.

Additionally, light pollution and powerlines cause collisions and electrocutions, leading to millions of bird deaths every year. Large species, especially soaring birds like eagles, falcons, storks, and buzzards, are prone to be electrocuted by unsafe pole types. Birds also collide with overhead lines when they fail to see the cables in time. Swans, other waterfowl, and large fast-flying birds are the most common victims.

Climate change

Timing migration just right is crucial for a safe and successful journey. With warmer temperatures earlier in the year and more frequent droughts leading to water scarcity, birds migrate earlier, and arrive before food is available. This in turn impacts the breeding success of species, such as insect-eating songbirds. On top of that, changing vegetation and extreme weather conditions can significantly affect the habitat of birds.

The power of BirdLife

Although the threats are severe, there is still time to create a better future for migratory birds. The BirdLife Partnership acts across borders and continents, all along the flyways, to help birds continue carrying out one of nature’s biggest wonders – migration.

Video created by Julien Bacus

Article by Caroline Herman

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Stichting BirdLife Europe gratefully acknowledges financial support from the European Commission. All content and opinions expressed on these pages are solely those of Stichting BirdLife Europe. The European Commission is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information it contains.