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Risks too large to fly over

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11 May 2014 – Migratory birds such as swallows, turtle doves, quails and geese face several life-threatening perils during their journey from the cold North to warmer climates – and back. Delayed spring seasons, deserts and bright city lights all threaten their arrival, but one danger stands out as especially hazardous: humans.

As the birds traverse the continent and head to the warmer climate of the Mediterranean, it is a journey from which millions will never return. Already in precedent years, landing in Egypt has been a risky business as Egyptians have caught migratory birds for subsistence for generations. In recent years, however, the intensity of the trapping and shooting has escalated to unprecedented levels.

Those who have to venture further South encounter another death trap: the Sahara, and below it, the Sahel which stretches out 400 km wide – and increasing. Once pas the desert, Nigeria is only one example of the looming dangers, as locals around Ebok-Boje hunt swallows for food at the resting spots for swallows. It is estimated that around 200 000 swallows die each year as a result of the hunting.

wmbd2014 poster en 600wBut the migratory birds are not only hunted for food – they are also hunted for amusement. Malta is particularly dangerous, and despite legislation against use of weapons, little enforcement is actually taking place. The island is particularly dangerous for all larger, slower birds who do not fly very fast. For instance, the honey buzzard’s route up to Finland passes through Malta, and the population in Finland has been declining largely as a result of the hunt on Malta.

Practices such as net traps laid in indiscriminately catch birds, some of which have multimillion-euro conservation projects in Europe. The returning birds also have to face the Egyptian coastline – the worst place on earth for a migratory bird. Experts estimate that the 700 km long range of net traps annually kills around 100 million migratory birds, depending on estimates.

And, on top of that, the dangers to migratory birds caused by climate change are multiplying. The simple presence of humans and developing cities has destroyed or altered the breeding habits of these birds, which has caused a decrease in their numbers. Fluctuating temperatures, flooding or deforestation has exacerbated this damage. Further risks come from stopover coastal areas where the birds rest on their journey. With a reduction of these areas many birds simply no longer have the energy to finish their journey and perish en route.

As we observe the World Migratory Bird Day on the 11 of May Un Secretary General Ban Ki-moon recognizes these challenges: "I fully support the global campaign to raise awareness about the threats to migratory birds from habitat destruction, overexploitation, pollution and climate change. I call for greater international efforts to restore and preserve migratory birds and the network of sites they need to survive as an important part of the environment on which we all depend."

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