More than 200 migratory bird species are endangered by extreme weather events such as cyclones and droughts, according to a new report.
And the situation is only set to worsen with climate change, say scientists.
The new study, by the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), highlights the extent to which migratory birds – such as eagles, cranes, swifts, buzzards, and nightjars – are impacted by cyclones and droughts.
These extreme weather events lessen the already tight windows of opportunity for migration, threatening both the lives of birds and their ability to carry out tasks that benefit the world’s ecosystems – such as pest control and plant pollination.
Research indicates that events like cyclones and droughts will only increase in frequency and severity as the planet’s temperatures continue to rise, meaning conservation efforts are essential if migratory birds are to survive.
The study found that 182 migratory bird species were ‘highly exposed’ to either cyclones or droughts in either their breeding or wintering ranges, while an additional 67 migratory bird species were ‘highly exposed’ to both weather events in a singular range.
Cranes, crakes, rails, and nightjars were most exposed to cyclones, while hawks, eagles, vultures, and kites were most exposed to droughts.
The eastern whip-poor-will (a North American nightjar) and the grey-faced buzzard (one of the only raptors to migrate over the ocean, traveling from Japan and Korea to southeast Asia) are particularly exposed to both weather events.
This is not only dangerous for the birds themselves but also for the planet, as migration also functions as a way to keep the ecosystem healthy.
Many geese and duck species for instance move seeds and nutrients across habitats, increasing plant diversity and improving the fertility of local soils.
Meanwhile, species such as the common swifts – often seen soaring across the British skies in spring and summer – provide insect control and crop protection, both in their breeding grounds in Europe and Asia and in their wintering grounds in Africa.
Senior author Professor Nathalie Pettorelli, from ZSL’s Institute of Zoology, said: “We cannot ignore how important migration is for global ecosystem health.
“These birds travel huge distances every year to raise chicks and survive the colder months, connecting ecosystems across the world.
“They provide vital ecosystem benefits including pest control and pollination of plants, while sometimes acting as key food sources for local wildlife.
“These birds are also a source of delight for millions of bird watchers and enthusiasts around the world – and many species that we are used to seeing here in the UK, such as swifts, pied flycatchers, and house martins, are already being exposed to these extreme events.”
Lead author Rhys Preston Allen, a former student at ZSL’s Institute of Zoology who is now doing his PhD at Imperial College London, added: “We are already seeing worrying declines in migratory species populations around the world.
“Migration is a vital survival strategy that evolved because the benefits – such as increased food availability – outweighed the costs.
“Unfortunately, this balance is shifting under escalating pressures from climate change and other threats, leading to less predictable ‘windows of opportunity’ along birds’ migratory routes.
“This trend not only endangers the bird species involved, but also threatens the entire global network of ecosystems reliant on their migrations.”
The research team has called for more conservation efforts across the wintering and breeding grounds of migratory birds, and for worldwide action to tackle climate change – so that the issue can be addressed at the source.
Dr. Henry Häkkinen, study co-author and researcher at ZSL, argued that this starts with a greater understanding of the threats birds are facing – pointing to the fact that, while the study identifies a significant number of species exposed to cyclones and droughts, only 28 are currently listed as threatened by these events.
He explained: “Extreme weather events such as cyclones and droughts aren’t always factored into extinction risk assessments – but our work shows they must be.
“The Red List is vital for guiding conservation, and as our understanding of the threats wildlife face grows, our assessments of their extinction risk must adapt to ensure we don’t miss vital windows for action.”
Meanwhile, Professor Pettorelli emphasized the need for nations to work together to address global warming.
She said: “World leaders are currently in Dubai to discuss the action needed to tackle climate change.
“The biodiversity and climate change crises are two sides of the same coin.
“Not only is it imperative we significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions to avoid climate chaos and protect people and wildlife, but it is also essential that decision-makers champion nature and healthy, functioning ecosystems as key players for climate change mitigation and adaptation.
“In the fight against climate change, humans and wildlife are allies.
“We need action now: the road to a sustainable future where humans and wildlife thrive is clear; all we need is the political will to get us there.”
Produced in association with SWNS Talker