Each year millions of migratory birds in every country across the globe make the perilous annual journey from their breeding grounds to wintering grounds. These journeys can span vast distances, like arctic terns, who over the course of their lifetime travel the equivalent of to the moon and back three times. They can require incredible feats of endurance, like that of E7, the bar-tailed godwit who made a single flight of over 11,000km. Some of them return year after year to the same location, navigating across landscapes now vastly changed by humans.
Migratory birds rely on multiple places – their breeding grounds, non-breeding (or wintering) areas and the places they rely on to rest and refuel in between. These higher demands make migrants vulnerable. Any threat to one of these areas, such as habitat loss or hunting, can impact the whole population. This unique aspect of migratory birds presents a major conservation challenge: how can we look after these incredible species that rely on so many different landscapes, often across multiple political boundaries? One of the best ways to protect migratory birds is to put aside land for their use, in protected areas.
In our recent paper, we looked at how well current protected areas cover the distribution of migratory birds. We discovered that when you take into account their need for protection in their breeding grounds, non-breeding grounds and stop-over sites they rely on in between, migratory birds are woefully under protected. More than 90% of the 1451 migratory species we looked at are missing protection in one or more of their seasonal ranges. Without these protections, they can be very vulnerable to threats. Far Eastern Curlew, a large brown shorebird with a long curved bill, breed in Siberian tundra, then migrate to Australia and New Zealand. Along the way, they stop to rest and feed at mudflats in coastal China and Korea. Land reclamation activities owing to urban, industrial and agricultural expansion and changes in river flow from dams have destroyed many of these critical sites and the species is suffering a rapid decline. Protection of these key stopover sites will be crucial to the long-term survival of these birds.
Some countries are doing well at protecting their birds but being let down by countries elsewhere along their migratory route. For example, Germany’s protected areas adequately cover the distributions of 98% of the migratory bird species within its borders, but less than 13% of those species are have sufficient overseas.
But there is hope. Currently, nations across the world are undergoing a big drive to increase the amount of land and sea that is protected, with international agreements like the Convention on Biodiversity Conservation driving a rapid increase in global protected areas. Portugal recently announced two new protected areas filling in key gaps for migratory birds, including the Critically Endangered Balearic Shearwater, Europe’s rarest seabird. We need to make sure these new protected areas go in the right places to fill the gaps for migratory species. There is a real danger that countries will meet their 17% and 10% terrestrial and marine protected area commitments in the wrong places, places that are of limited conservation value to migrants. Increased international cooperation will be essential, plus more information about what locations might be the most critical to the long term future of each migratory species.
With strong commitment from governments across the world, and some smart science, these incredible migrations will be around to capture the imagination of future generations.