Bird Teams Flock to Iraq to Survey War's Impact

James Owen in England
for National Geographic News
May 21, 2003

Peace doves may now be flying over Iraq but conservationists fear many birds could be feeling the effects of the recent war.

Following the world's largest military operation since the last Gulf war, international teams of biologists are to investigate the impact of this year's conflict on Iraq's bird life.

Five survey teams will soon be sent to the country by BirdLife International, an alliance of bird conservation organizations from around the world. They will assess the conservation status of key habitats, sites, and species.

Their visit comes after the latest in a series of conflicts to grip the region since the 1980s. And while some conservationists fear the US-led coalition's invasion of Iraq has had serious consequences for already beleaguered bird populations, there are also hopes that the end of Saddam Hussein's regime will provide an opportunity to rejuvenate damaged bird habitat.

Among the species BirdLife is most worried about is the Basra reed warbler. It says data gathered just before the war indicates its global status has deteriorated from "near threatened" to "endangered." This classification means the species faces a very high risk of extinction in the near future.

The warbler's last stronghold is the Mesopotamian marshlands to the north of Basra. As well as being home to several other endemic or near-endemic Iraqi birds, these wetlands are also considered a vital overwintering and stopover destination for migratory birds.

BirdLife will assess over 40 important bird areas throughout Iraq, including wetland, steppe, desert, and mountain habitats.

"We will concentrate on the areas we know are important for biodiversity," said Mike Evans, a BirdLife researcher who specializes in the Middle East. "Key species will be the three endemics—Basra reed warbler, Iraq babbler, and grey hypocolius; also wintering waterfowl, especially the Dalmatian pelican, pygmy cormorant, white-headed duck and marbled teal, as the status of these will give a good indication of the health of the sites."

Bombs and Pollution

Possible damage caused to birds and their habitats during the recent war include physical destruction and disturbance through bombing and artillery fire, burning of wetlands and forests caused by fighting, and smoke pollution from oil fires.

Another threat comes from desertification due to tanks and other military vehicles, as BirdLife Iraq project coordinator, Richard Porter, explains.

"Vehicle movements destroy the desert's surface 'crust,'" Porter said. "The crust seems to be very slow to repair itself, with scientists estimating recovery over decades (40 to 250 years) rather than months or years. One study of tank tracks in the Arizona desert suggested full recovery only after 1,000 years."

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