12 Oct 2018

7 things we’re doing to protect migratory birds

This year, we held the first ever global summit for flyways conservation, uniting a panoply of countries and sectors. On World Migratory Bird Day, we’re sharing some of the most important decisions we made in order to ensure the miracle of migration will be there for future generations to enjoy.

Migration is becoming more and more hazardous for birds © Amy Johansson
Migration is becoming more and more hazardous for birds © Amy Johansson
By Jessica Law

Birds don’t stay put – that’s just a fact of life. Some of them cross country boundaries, others cross oceans, others the entire globe. And it’s not always the birds you’d expect – falcons, storks and even penguins all make the journey. One of the main reasons we set up BirdLife International way back in 1922 was to unite countries to protect birds across borders. 96 years on, we’re still hard at work, and there are new problems our founders never foresaw. That’s why this April we held our first ever Global Summit for the Flyways, which brought together scientists, businesses, governments and NGOs and more - in fact, 100 organisations from 70 different countries. Together, we pinpointed the main threats to migratory birds along their routes, and where best to redouble our efforts. Here are just a few of those priorities:


1. Fostering bird-friendly farmland

The Kori Bustard can reach a staggering 19 kg © David Berkowitz

Migratory birds don’t just use wild habitats. Bustards in particular breed and feed across the farmland of Africa and Eurasia. These huge grassland specialists are the world’s heaviest migratory birds, known as the “flying fortresses” of the avian world: the Kori Bustard Ardeotis kori (Near Threatened) can reach an enormous 19kg. But they are also one of the most imperilled bird families, with almost a third of the 26 species threatened with extinction.

So how to make farmland bustard-safe? An important step is to bury dangerous powerlines and take down unnecessary fences, to prevent deadly collisions. We’re also working alongside farmers to ensure bustard-friendly practices. For example, in Cambodia, farmers are adjusting the way they grow dry-season rice in order to give the Critically Endangered Bengal Florican Houbaropsis bengalensis time and space to breed successfully. To complement our work with farmland, we’re restoring natural grassland and creating wild corridors between key populations, allowing birds to meet and breed.


2. Saving vultures

Kenya's rapid response poisoning unit is a lifeline for the Lappet-faced Vulture © Andre Botha

Last year saw great progress in the fight to halt vulture decline: an ambitious Multi-species Action Plan to conserve African-Eurasian Vultures was adopted by the Convention on Migratory Species. This plan is already well underway, but an important step in the next few years is to take what’s working in some locations, and roll them out on a wider scale across whole continents.

One particularly promising flagship project is Kenya’s rapid-response vulture poisoning unit, which is able to respond so quickly to a poison-laced carcass that there are often zero vulture casualties where there used to be hundreds. The plan is to roll this scheme out across the whole African continent. Similarly, South Asia’s “Vulture Safe Zones” (areas free from the use of vulture-toxic veterinary drug Diclofenac) are proving highly effective, and similar landscape-wide approaches are set to be transferred to Africa.


3. Protecting our coasts

The Spoon-billed Sandpiper relies on the Yellow Sea's mudflats © Kajornyot Wildlife Photography

At first sight, beaches, mudflats and estuaries may not look lush or verdant – but beneath the surface, nutritious invertebrates abound. For migrating shorebirds, these are crucial re-fuelling stops on a staggeringly long journey where the next suitable site may not appear for thousands of miles. Sadly, these formerly wild zones are breaking under the pressure of land reclamation, pollution and other human disturbances.

That’s why it is essential to protect the linked chain of wetlands along the world’s migration flyways, supporting birds on every step of their route. At this year’s summit, we discussed the development of a Global Coastal Forum whereby countries across the world can communicate with each other and co-ordinate their coastal conservation work. The forum would help to protect the most important sites for migratory waterbirds, work with sectors invested in coastal ecosystems, such as shellfisheries, aquaculture and salt extraction, to incorporate conservation objectives in their wetland management, and facilitate restoration of coastal wetlands.

4. Making renewable energy bird-safe

Wind turbines are a particular threat to soaring birds like raptors © PPictures

Renewable energy has the potential to provide the clean, low-carbon electricity the future so desperately needs. As technology advances, it’s getting easier and cheaper to set up, and is spreading out across the world. But there’s a big problem. Migrating birds, especially soaring birds such as raptors (which use thermals and wind currents to travel) are colliding with the rotating blades of wind turbines and powerlines, or getting electrocuted when they perch on electrical infrastructure.

Thankfully, this can be avoided – as long as they’re not placed in migration flight paths. We’ve already developed a sensitivity mapping tool which shows areas where it might be inappropriate to locate wind farms and powerlines. Tools like these are being used by projects on the ground, such as our 11-country Migratory Soaring Birds Project, and to inform the Convention on Migratory Species Energy Task Force, which both foster links with industry, government and finance sectors to engage them early in the project development process, when biodiversity can be factored into the planning stage. 


5. Ending illegal bird killing by changing attitudes

A bird guide for children is changing attitudes in Cyprus © BirdLife Cyprus

Every year, millions of birds are shot or trapped illegally as they pass overhead on migration – an estimated 11-36 million a year in the Mediterranean Basin alone. But this problem isn’t something we can halt simply through the enforcement of legislation. Some forms of illegal killing have roots in the cultural traditions. We can’t just change laws: we have to change minds.

At the summit, delegates shared their experiences of trying to halt this practice. Everyone stressed the need to support a lasting change in attitudes, fostering greater respect for migratory birds and the phenomenal journeys they undertake. That's why our awareness-raising campaigns will temper sicenice with compassion. At a national level, BirdLife partners will work with everyone concerned, including communities, schools, hunting organisations to champion zero tolerance of illegal killing. An important step is to focus on the next generation, inspiring families and young people to grow up connected to nature. We aim to embed conservation in school curriculums, and in Cyprus a children’s bird guide has already gone a long way to converting the next generation of conservationists.


6. Restoring raptors

The Saker Falcon is an iconic flagship for wider raptor conservation © Michal Ninger

Strong, majestic, skilled – it seems strange that raptors should be so vulnerable. But as our latest study shows, half of the world’s raptor species have declining populations. A flagship for raptor conservation is the Saker Falcon Falco cherrug, a highly popular and iconic bird across central Europe and Asia. This species has suffered rapid declines owing to electrocution on powerlines, habitat destruction and unsustainable trapping for falconry. It is now classed as Endangered.

At this year’s summit, delegates assessed the success of the ongoing Saker Falcon Global Action Plan, set up in 2014. Particular triumphs included the installation of thousands of bird-safe electricity poles - which will benefit many other raptor species - and the tagging of 70 Saker Falcons to further understand their threats and habitat requirements. These achievements have paved the way for wider raptor conservation.


7. Communication, communication, communication

Conservation needs to be like the Red-crowned Crane and shout about what it's doing © Josh Anon

At the summit, dozens of conservation organisations took part in a forum to share their experiences, success stories and to identify gaps in their ability to carry out their work. As well as the gaps you might expect, such as training and equipment, one recurring theme was communication. Often, the work was being carried out on the ground, but there wasn’t enough capacity to communicate this work to the rest of the world.

Awareness-raising plays a huge role in changing minds and behaviours, and in inspiring others to take part. Therefore, one aim in our future work will be to help organisations communicate not only to the local community, but also in a manner that the private sector can understand, so that conservation is considered in major decisions.


Finally, we’ll let BirdLife CEO Patricia Zurita remind you why we do what we do, and why it’s all worth it:

“For many of us, migratory birds are a cultural touchstone; they mark changes in the seasons, or certain parts of the year, and we look forward to their return, time after time. They are also a reminder of the connection and link between people, as we all are responsible, together, for caring for and protecting these remarkable species. Unfortunately, migratory birds are now more threatened than ever, with more than 40 percent of species declining. Migratory Bird Day is a time for us to remember and celebrate the connection, as well as our shared responsibility to care for these birds and the lands they fly over during their incredible journeys.”


Download the full Flyways Summit outcomes document here.