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Finely Tuned Instincts

If you want to understand nature, pay close attention to birds because they certainly do. Their instincts are finely tuned to coordinate with temperature changes and weather patterns. Birds are well known for their seasonal migratory actions. The main reason they migrate to warmer climates is because winter weather can threaten their food supply.

Many European birds are known to use Africa as their winter home. But in recent years, numerous species have decided not to return to Europe after their stay, or return in far less numbers. In fact the red-backed shrike, a British-African migrant bird, and many other species of birds have become totally extinct in Britain. Researchers believe that the explanation for why birds are not returning is a combination of climate change, habitat loss and hazards along the migratory journey.

The loss of any species to a particular region is always a cause for great concern. The loss of British-African migrant birds in Britain is certainly no exception.

Britain’s Summer Visitors

It may seem strange that birds that evolved in Africa, having access to beautiful weather and plentiful food, would even consider migrating to a locale like Britain. But when creatures with such great instinct do something, you know there is a good reason for it.

Competition for food, shelter and space in Africa is ultimately what drives birds away. The temperate regions of Europe, like Britain, with warm summer days and plentiful food is a likely destination and the perfect breeding ground for birds. But there are many potential hazards along the way. Birds face predators, exhaustion from grueling travel and the risk of not finding enough food along the way. Migration ultimately becomes a test of endurance and stamina and only the fittest survive. Nonetheless, the choice they have of staying put where they are and enduring inclement weather is a far more dangerous choice.

The highest declines in migratory birds are seen among songbirds like the Common Cuckoo, the Turtle Dove and the Spotted Flycatcher. These are species that typically breed in the UK and then migrate to Africa during the winter months. Nearly 50 percent of the species types that migrate between Europe and Africa have declined over the last several decades. Researchers have been following the problem all along, but have only recently realized how far-reaching the decline will be if nothing is done about it. Some of these species are already on the endangered list.

Climate Change

While the drastic effects of climate change that scientists have predicted may not be apparent to many of us yet, we only need to look at the migratory patterns of birds to see that climate change is indeed in effect.

Of the African birds that still do come and go from the UK, it has been observed that many of the ones who migrate in the spring arrive many days earlier than they used to. They have adapted their breeding cycles to coordinate with the warming climate. Changes in precipitation have altered bird behavior as well. Those that spend much of their time around water have allowed changing rainfall patterns to determine where they will spend most of their time. One significant problem in the UK is that climate change is not happening in unison. For example, a particular flower might bloom at its usual time, but if a bird species that would typically instigate the flowering of that plant does not show up in time, pollination might not occur.

What is really happening is that wildlife is telling us that our planet is in dire trouble. We can see that their way of life is being affected and it is only natural that human life will soon be affected, too. The expectations over the next several years and decades is that we will start to see a number of species of birds and other animals across the globe, altering their behavior and doing things that they never did before. It is also likely that bird populations will continue to decline and that there will be many that end up on the endangered and extinct lists.

It is not certain whether it is the climate conditions in Britain, Africa or somewhere along the migratory route that is causing the declines in migration. But it is imperative that we strive to understand the adversity they face if we wish to help them.

Act Now

One staggering forecast predicts that at the rate we are going, half of all animal and plant life on Earth will be extinct by the year 2100. That’s more than enough reason to want to act now and try to do something about it. There are a few organizations that are doing exactly that.

One expedition by the RSBP, an organization in the UK dedicated to helping birds, has set out to examine the habitats of birds in West Africa. It’s a wide-ranging project that will span from Ghana to Burkina Faso and cover a number of habitats including rainforests and deserts. Researches will be counting and ringing birds in order to collect a wide breadth of data. The data collected will hopefully provide the researches with a better understanding of the bird’s wintering grounds and why migration is in decline.

While it is unlikely that humans can do anything to change migration patterns back to normal, our understanding of the reasons why migratory patterns have changed could help in some significant ways.