Migratory birds are woefully underprotected

If you want to see a blackpoll warbler, their breeding grounds in Nova Scotia and Vermont are probably the best places to do it. The blackpoll warbler flies each year from there across the Atlantic to overwinter in the Caribbean and South America. For three days straight the tiny birds flap their way over the water, but North American birders are most likely to check the species off their life lists in New England or eastern Canada. This and other migratory species are responsible not just for inspiring our species and filling us with a sense of awe and wonder, but also for the long-distance movement of biomass and nutrients across the face of our planet. And half of them have declined over the past 30 years.

The trouble with providing adequate protection to migratory species is that it requires international collaboration. To protect its entire range throughout the entire year, blackpoll warblers would require help from at least a dozen different nations: the US, Canada, Cuba, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Jamaica, the Cayman Islands, Brazil, Venezuela, Guyana, and more. It’s not enough for protection from just the US and Canada, for example; the birds also require protection in their winter locales. Compounding the problem, species assessments have historically treated migratory species as if they were homebodies, meaning that it’s not very clear just how well protected migratory species even are.

That’s where University of California, Santa Barbara researcher Claire A. Runge comes in. Together with an international team of biologists and ecologists, she assessed how well 1451 migratory bird species are protected throughout their annual cycles, and compared the proportion of their habitats that receive some from of protection against conservation targets.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, more than 9 out of every 10 migratory bird species is inadequately protected in at least one segment of their annual cycles, even if other segments are extremely well-protected. And the protections that do exist are essentially random; they’re not organized in any coherent or predictable pattern. “[That’s] despite widespread recognition of the need for an internationally coordinated approach to conservation of migratory species, protection is not yet systematically coordinated across the seasonal ranges of species,” Runge writes this week in the journal Science.

Here’s another way to look at it: a total of 8,283 IBAs – Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas – have been identified for 885 migratory bird species. These sites are identified either because so many individuals show up there that more than one percent of a species is present, or because they host populations of at least one globally or regionally threatened migrant. Only 2.9% of migratory bird species have fully protected IBAs throughout their range.

Less than 4% of the annual distribution of the Vulnerable red-spectacled amazon falls inside of protected areas, and just 7% of the landscape used by the Vulnerable great knot received any kind of protection. These and other species would require much more protection if extinction is to be avoided.

It’s easy to say that wealthier nations are losing some of their prime birdwatching opportunities to the inaction of poorer nations, but that’s not always true. As Runge points out, quite a number of countries in Central and South America, and Africa, meet protection targets for more than 75% of the migratory birds that pass through, while the US and Canada lag behind. China and India meet conservation goals for fewer than 10% of their migratory species, while Germany provides habitat protection for more than 98% of theirs.

While national efforts are useful and encouraged, Runge says that “collaborative international partnerships and concerted intergovernmental coordination and action” are key to effective avian conservation. Short of that, birdwatchers will be left having just each other to spot through their scopes. – Jason G. Goldman | 04 December 2015

Source: Claire A. Runge, James E. M. Watson, Stuart H. M. Butchart, Jeffrey O. Hanson, Hugh P. Possingham, & Richard A. Fuller. (2015). Protected areas and global conservation of migratory birds. Science 350(6265): 1255-1258. DOI: 10.1126/science.aac9180.

Header image: Blackpoll warbler via shutterstock.com