Opinion: Towards a World United for Migratory Birds

Culturally, ecologically and economically, our natural heritage – i.e. wildlife in general and migratory species in particular – is of immeasurable value.  By spreading seeds, controlling pests and providing food migratory birds help sustain human life.  Their cyclical journeys herald the changing seasons, filling the skies with their V-shaped formations in the spring and autumn. They feature in myths and legends; their epic journeys that can span oceans and continents, their plumage, courtship dances and aerobatics inspire awe and wonder. Birdwatching is a worldwide industry which has millions of participants, is worth billions of dollars, is sustainable and can bring considerable benefits to the environment.

Migratory birds are particularly vulnerable – they face habitat loss because of land use changes resulting from the growing demand for food and natural resources – forests are being felled, natural grasslands are being turned over to agriculture, wetlands are being drained and towns and cities are expanding to accommodate a growing human population.  Populations of many migratory birds are in decline – some are on the brink of extinction.  In most cases the causes are manmade – vultures in South Asia suffered catastrophic losses (of up to 99%) when they were poisoned by residues of the veterinary drug diclofenac accumulated in the corpses of the carrion they ate.  The environmental and human cost was high. The vacuum left by the vultures – nature’s waste disposal units - was filled by wild dogs, which spread rabies leading to thousands people being infected.  Amur Falcons were being trapped in unsustainably high numbers in north-east India, until the international outcry led to the authorities intervening.  Millions of songbirds are being killed every year across the Mediterranean, some captured in plastic netting that has spread along the North African coast, while long line fisheries especially in the southern oceans take a heavy toll of long-lived and slow-breeding species such as albatrosses and petrels as bycatch when the birds attracted by the fish used as bait get caught on the hooks.

Within a few years of its first encounter with Europeans, the Dodo, a flightless pigeon found only on Mauritius, went extinct, immortalized in the dictionary as a byword for a doomed species.  The Passenger pigeon, possibly once the most numerous bird species on the planet, was hunted to oblivion and the last, lonely specimen died early last century.

It is to avoid more species sharing the fate of these two, that the UN’s Convention on Migratory Species (CMS) and the African-Eurasian Migratory Waterbird Agreement, two intergovernmental environment treaties administered by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) organize World Migratory Bird Day (WMBD) each year.  WMBD celebrates the phenomenon of bird migration and the contribution birds make to the diversity of the planet and enriching our lives.  On previous occasions, the chosen theme has highlighted threats such as land use change and barriers to migration; or a more positive message has been conveyed, emphasizing the role of migratory birds as ambassadors for biodiversity and the importance to tourism of holiday destinations along birds’ flyways.  WMBD was initiated in 2006 primarily in response to the adverse publicity affecting wild birds during the first outbreaks of avian influenza.  At first there were calls to cull wild birds and drain their wetland habitats, but wiser counsel prevailed when it became clear that the main vectors of the disease were domestic poultry. The theme this year – the tenth time WMBD has been held - is “Energy – make it bird-friendly”, highlighting the fact that thousands of birds die each year as a result of collisions with wind turbines and electrocution on power lines. 

Climate change is likely to be the greatest contribution to biodiversity loss over the coming decades, and all those dealing with conservation therefore welcome measures aimed at reducing CO2 and other gases contributing to global warming.  Replacing power stations that burn fossil fuels, with renewable technologies – wind, wave, tidal, solar, geothermal and hydro- power – is an essential ingredient in the solution but could also cause more problems if not implemented sensitively - which means taking into account other environmental factors and putting in place proper checks and balances to ensure, for instance, that wind turbines are suitably located, avoiding birds’ migration routes.

WMBD had modest beginnings as an African-Eurasian complement to “International World Migratory Day”, the brainchild of the US Fish and Wildlife Service in partnership with the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center and the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology.  It has however since grown into a global event, which last year saw over 400 different activities organized in over 80 countries and territories worldwide.

At their triennial Conference last year in Quito, Parties to CMS adopted a Resolution calling for World Migratory Bird Day to be observed officially by the UN.  Kenya, the country that hosted the first ever WMBD event – WINGS – held at the Kuki Gallmann’s famous wildlife reserve at Ole Ari Nyiro – has undertaken to steer a corresponding resolution through the General Assembly.  Migratory birds are part of the Earth’s shared natural heritage; they know no borders – neither should the international efforts to ensure that everyone in all corners of the world should be able to relish, enjoy and benefit from the birds’ continued presence.


Professor Judi Wangalwa Wakhungu is Kenya’s Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Water and Natural Resources and Bradnee Chambers is Executive Secretary of the United Nations’ Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals. 

Last updated on 08 July 2015