For World Migratory Bird Day, Borja Heredia of the Convention on Migratory Species tells DW why countries should collaborate to protect the world’s feathered travelers.Deutsche Welle: It’s that time of year when a lot of migratory birds are moving home to roost. World Migratory Bird Day is also on May 10. Why do we need it?
Bird migration is linked with the history of people over many thousands of years. It’s a topic that’s relevant because everybody can see the arrival of migratory birds, and this is interpreted in many different ways. It’s normally seen as the arrival of spring – and some birds, like the white stork, are seen as a symbol of fertility. In other civilizations, for example in Egypt, birds are depicted as symbols of wisdom and the richness of crops.
So bird migration is very much linked with the history of civilization. It’s also an important ecological phenomenon, because birds provide a lot of ecosystem services to humanity. This is something we should celebrate and preserve.
In what ways do birds help the ecosystem?
Sometimes they provide direct economic benefits, like helping to control plagues of insects, and they also play a role in pollination. These are huge economic services. If the pollination provided by the birds didn’t occur, we’d have to pay millions to provide this artificially.
This year’s theme for World Migratory Bird Day is “their future is our future.” Why?
We must include the protection of birds in development policies at all levels and in all countries across the world. We need healthy ecosystems, which include all species. This is related to sustainable development, which has an important environmental component, as well as a social and economic component.
World Migratory Bird Day cites seven flagship species: barn swallow, black-tailed godwit, Amur falcon, garganey, yellow-breasted bunting, red knot, and spoon-billed sandpiper. Why are you focusing on these seven types of bird this year?
These seven species are kind of ambassadors. They live in different kinds of habitats, and are all highly migratory, so they represent the threats affecting migratory birds. If we take, for example, a species like the Amur falcon, which is a little bird of prey that migrates from Asia to South Africa – when they stop to roost in some places in India, they are hunted in a way that is unsustainable and illegal.
Why is this happening?
They use birds as a source of protein, and for trade. This is a success story, because this was addressed with the Indian government and the regional authorities, and now there is much stronger protection measures in place and a number of the hunters are doing other activities, including ecotourism or monitoring. So there are solutions to these problems.
Can you tell us about some of the other seven species which are particularly in need of protection?
A number of the ambassador species are coastal birds, or shore birds. These undertake amazing migrations that can go from the Arctic to the Antarctic and across the whole world. Spoonbills, sandpipers and the red knot are closely linked to coastal ecosystems – and these are subject to huge economic pressure for development, housing and tourism.
So these species represent the need to protect the coastal habitat, because these birds travel hundreds of kilometers, but they need places to stop, rest and refuel. And these places are essential. If we degrade these places, it will lead to inevitable decline of these populations, and this is what we are witnessing with spoonbills and sandpipers.
International cooperation is presumably really important. After all, these migratory species have to fly across borders and rest and live in different parts of the world.
This is why the CMS [Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals] was created in the late 1970s. At the heart of the convention is international cooperation, to bring together different countries that share the range of these species and get them to agree on conservation policies and programs.
For that, we follow what we call a “flyway approach,” which takes into account all the different countries that are across the flyways and not just the breeding areas. It doesn’t matter if they are rich or poor, developed or under-developed – the issue is to get the countries to work together for the conservation of these birds.
What can countries do to protect birds? How important is it to create protected areas or nature reserves?
Protected areas, and also UNESCO world heritage sites, are very important. We have some good examples here in Europe: for example, the Wadden Sea, a coastal area shared by Germany, the Netherlands and Denmark. This is of absolute importance for the shorebirds, and waterbirds. And it’s very important that these three countries have an agreement to protect it, with joint authority and joint programs for monitoring.
Countries must also control illegal and unsustainable hunting of birds, and increase public awareness about the beauty of migratory birds – and the need to protect them. They must spread the message and get it to reach normal people, which is one of the key functions of Migratory Bird Day.
Borja Heredia is the leading bird expert at the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species, and has been appointed as senior advisor for the Agreement on the Conservation of Small Cetaceans in the Baltic, North East Atlantic, Irish and North Seas (ASCOBANS). He previously served as Spain’s representative on the Scientific Council.
The interview was conducted by Irene Quaile and has been edited for length and clarity.