Monday, April 21, 2008


MICHAEL MCCARTHY, INDEPENDENT, UK Many of the birds that migrate to Britain and Europe from Africa every spring, from the willow warbler to the cuckoo, are undergoing alarming declines, new research shows. The falls in numbers are so sharp and widespread that ornithologists are waking up to a major new environmental problem - the possibility that the whole system of bird migration between Africa and Europe is running into trouble. It is estimated that, each spring, 16 million birds of nearly 50 species pour into Britain to breed from their African winter quarters, and as many as five billion into Europe as a whole, before returning south in the autumn. Many are songbirds weighing next to nothing, and their journeys of thousands of miles, including crossing the Sahara desert each way, have long been recognized as one of the world's most magnificent natural phenomena on the scale of the Gulf Stream or the Indian monsoon. But now their numbers are tumbling precipitately. . .

Across Britain, many people who used to look forward each year to hearing the first cuckoo - just about now, in the third week of April - no longer have the chance to do so. If fewer and fewer birds are returning to their breeding grounds, the inevitable consequence is that their populations will shrink ever more rapidly, ultimately, towards extinction. That may still be a long way off for the global populations of many migrants, but in Britain, several species are heading towards disappearance.

This worrying prospect is outlined in the first full statistical account put together by experts seeking to understand what is happening and why. Figures in an unpublished survey produced by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds paints a startling picture of plunging populations. Of the 36 British-African migrant species for which there is long-term population data (going back to 1967), 21 have declined significantly.

These include the two species which have become extinct in Britain in the same period - the red-backed shrike and the wryneck, the only migratory woodpecker - and another 11 which have suffered declines of more than 50 per cent.