14 May 2012 – On World Migratory Bird Day, celebrated 12-13 May this year, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) would like to raise awareness of the important role that migratory wild birds play as a vital part of biodiversity in all ecosystems. Migratory birds serve key functions in the interconnected systems that keep nature healthy, including pollination and seed dispersal of crops for human and livestock consumption, pest regulation and as an aesthetic source of pride for cultures across the globe.
Migratory birds are increasingly at risk due to the negative consequences of human activity including environmental pollution, toxins, pesticides, electrified power lines, wind turbines, and other physical changes to landscapes and habitats (terrestrial and aquatic). In addition, encroachment from human settlement, agriculture and poaching – be it for subsistence food, a means of income or for high profits in illegal game hunting – are destroying habitat for all wildlife species, including migratory birds. For these reasons, it is imperative that FAO and partner organizations work together to safeguard migratory birds, their migration routes and their habitats.
World Migratory Bird Day was created in 2006 by the Secretariat of the African-Eurasian Migratory Waterbird Agreement (AEWA) in collaboration with the United Nations Environment Program Convention on Migratory Species (UNEP-CMS) as a way to raise awareness about migratory birds. This year’s theme is “Migratory Birds and People – Together through Time.”
Birds generally reflect the status and trends affecting wider biodiversity. They are important for monitoring changes in the environment, since they are an integral part of almost all ecosystems in the world. According to UNEP-CMS, many sites identified as the at-risk conservation areas for birds also host numerous other threatened species of plants and animals. Therefore, priority sites for wild bird conservation often represent hot spots for other biodiversity as well.
Throughout the year, migratory birds cross countries and continents, some of them from the tundra to the tropics, covering hundreds or even thousands of miles linking different ecosystems. By conserving these birds and their environment, we ensure the conservation of biodiversity on a wider scale. This effort must take into account breeding areas, wintering areas, and stopover sites along their migratory flyways. The loss of any of the sites used by migratory birds during their annual cycle can have a dramatic impact on their chances of survival.
The emergence and spread of H5N1 highly pathogenic avian influenza (H5N1 HPAI) from 2003 until a peak in 2006 severely impacted poultry production, livelihoods and trade, and led to the deaths of more than 350 people to date. In response to this threat, FAO launched a focused effort to study migratory waterfowl and their potential role as a reservoir for H5N1 HPAI, and thus their ability to spread the virus over large distances. FAO, with partners, determined that migratory birds are not the reservoir for this virus, but they may play a role in the introduction of the virus to new areas. This was determined by tracking more than 550 migratory waterfowl from 24 species in 12 countries via radio tagging devices.
In addition to addressing avian influenza disease ecology issues, data collected from these healthy free-ranging migratory waterfowl have significant conservation implications. The project collected refined GPS information about the flyways used, stop over sites, foraging locations, wetland habitats, and breeding sites used that require protection to ensure the survival of migratory waterfowl. Concurrent with defining the role of wild birds in this disease story, it is important to recognise that diseases and toxins can have significant impacts on wild bird populations. Avian influenza resulted in the death of more than 6000 migratory waterfowl and significantly reduced populations of the threatened bar-headed goose (Anser indicus). Other diseases including West Nile virus, Newcastle disease, and duck plague have also caused large scale bird mortality events.The importance of migratory wild birds and the crucial role they play in maintaining ecosystems worldwide highlights the need for continued transdisciplinary collaboration to ensure the conservation of these species.