Humans Are Driving Birds to Extinction, Group Warns

James Owen in England
for National Geographic News
May 16, 2003

Conservationists warn that many birds face the same fate as their prehistoric ancestors, the dinosaurs. But it isn't an asteroid or volcanic eruption that's threatening to finish them off. The culprit, they say, stares at us from the bathroom mirror every day.

Humans are singled out in a recent report as the cause of what many scientists believe is the biggest mass extinction of animals in 65 million years. Published by the Worldwatch Institute, a U.S.-based environmental research organization, the report says scientists' fears are backed up by plummeting bird populations.

In the last two centuries over 100 bird species have disappeared. Another 1,200—12 percent of the planet's total—face extinction this century, according to BirdLife International, a worldwide conservation organization.

Worldwatch researcher Howard Youth, author of the report, says human factors are central to declining bird life. These include human encroachment on bird habitat, invasions by alien plant and animal species introduced or transported unwittingly by humans, hunting, and climate change wrought by human activities. And like canaries down the coal mine, he says, birds act as a crucial early-warning system that should alert us to the vulnerability of other plants and animals.

"People have long been inspired by the beauty, song, and varied behavior of birds," he said. "Today, we also recognize that birds provide critical goods and services in their habits, including seed dispersal, insect and rodent control, scavenging, and pollination.

"In addition, many bird species are valuable environmental indicators, warning us of impending environmental problems."

The report identifies habitat loss as having the most serious impact on bird life.

Youth says deforestation rates of between 50,000 and 170,000 square kilometers (roughly 20,000 to 65,000 square miles, or from slightly smaller than West Virginia to larger than Florida) per year are putting 85 percent of the world's most threatened bird species at risk.

Agriculture is also blamed. Almost half the land area of Europe is now farmed, much of it intensively. Youth says modern farming methods limit nesting opportunities, remove cover, and reduce food availability.

Bustard Decline

Europe's most prominent victim is its largest bird, the great bustard.

In the 18th century, Englishman Oliver Goldsmith wrote: "It was once much more numerous than at present; but the increased cultivation of the country, and the extreme delicacy of its flesh, has greatly thinned the species; so that a time may come when it may be doubted whether ever so large a bird was bred among us."

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