As autumn comes to northern Asia and
Europe, millions of birds are moving to warmer areas in
southern Asia and Africa. By this age-old strategy, they
are avoiding the difficulty of finding food in the northern
winter. The migration, however, brings its own challenges.
As well as the natural hazards of unpredictable weather,
high mountain ranges to pass over and seas and deserts
to cross, migrating birds must now cope with rapidly growing
human-induced pressures that range from habitat loss to
poisoning, and from unsustainable hunting to collision
with manmade structures.
Among the millions of migrants are significant numbers
of birds of prey and owls, collectively known as raptors.
The peoples through whose lands they pass often regard
them as magnificent and powerful birds. In fact, they
are particularly sensitive. Because they are at the top
of their food chains, they concentrate any poisons that
have been eaten by their prey. What may not be enough
insecticide to kill individual sparrows can certainly
kill the sparrowhawk. Mice that are weakened by rodenticides
are easier to catch, and they poison the owls that catch
them. Even in flight, birds are not safe. Although raptors
do not make good food, they are often killed for sport,
or for taxidermy; and they are frequently killed by those
who consider them a threat to game birds. This killing
is very difficult to stop, even where it is strictly illegal.
The news is not all bad. Some damaging pesticides have
been extensively banned, and birds of prey, such as the
Peregrine Falcon, have benefited and returned to historic
population levels in many parts of their range. Power
poles in several European countries, such as Germany,
have been redesigned to prevent birds that perch on them
being electrocuted. Where persecution is no longer widespread,
birds of prey have been reintroduced successfully, as
with White-tailed Eagles, Red Kites and Ospreys in the
It will be in the UK that delegates from 50 countries
will meet this autumn. In Scotland, home to many birds
of prey, scientists and nature conservation administrators
will meet in October to explore how nations can cooperate
more effectively to conserve these extraordinary birds.
The birds of prey and owls now on the move south cannot
know it, but plans are being laid to ensure that their
migrations will go on for millennia to come.