Studying the science of migratory birds - and what they tell us about the state of the environment

Keeping track of the migratory birds visiting the university campus, and how the impact of climate change would impact the migration of migratory birds, are among the subjects being promoted for research in universities across the globe. These include Beijing University, Royal University of Bhutan, University of SJP in Sri Lanka, HNB Garhwal University in India which are in the network of the Green TERRE Foundation. 

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CMSCOP14 and Migratory birds

"Nature knows no borders" is the slogan for the most important UN wildlife conference this year.  The 14th Meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Migratory Species of Wild Animals #CMSCoP14 will be hosted by the government of Uzbekistan in the historic city of Samarkand from 12-17 February 2024 https://www.cms.int/cop14.

Uzbekistan is a flyway with cross-roads for many migratory bird species between northern Europe and their wintering grounds in Africa and Asia. We can say that these migratory birds carried the messages of the current state of the environment in Europe in the north to Asia in the east and down to Africa in the south and back again.  But we humans did not understand their messaging and just spent time in idle ‘birdwatching’.

Let us hope that delegates from 133 countries who will gather in Samarkand will now understand the avian language and decide on which migratory species need greater conservation action and how to coordinate efforts to protect birds, mammals, reptiles, fish and insects as they cross from one nation to another. 

Learning from birds

Birds do not recognize national borders and fly freely all around the globe sans visas. There is a lot to learn from avian migration, firstly how to adapt to climate changes and scarcity of food and water.  Observation on such climate-based migration could be useful for humans in coming years when millions have to migrate due to the climate crisis as per IPCC. Secondly, they continue to help other animals even in adverse conditions!

Varieties of migratory birds play a critical role in acting as pest control agents by devouring insects and other organisms that harm the environment and crops on their way. Locust attacks are common in South Asia and Africa. The diminishing population of birds has aggravated the locust crisis. Migratory birds also help in dispersing the seeds, leading to biodiversity along their routes.

Lesser known facts are their contribution to biodiversity. Ducks transport fish eggs in their digestive tracks to new water bodies that get enriched in essential minerals for fish to grow. That’s the birds’ way to give back to nature. The droppings of birds are rich in nitrogen and act as natural/organic fertilizers.

Migratory birds therefore serve as indicators of the state of the environment in an area. India is fortunate that birds from 29 countries fly to India every year. 

Across the world, the arrival and departure of migratory species are important to many people, particularly rural farmers, whether in the UK, India, South Africa or China.  In the UK and Europe, the call of the cuckoo tells us spring is here, and the swooping of swallows and swifts signifies summer - but these birds spend their winter months in Africa feeding on insects whose life cycles are ecologically linked to elephants, apes and lions.  It is no good to conserve habitat in the UK or China without considering the threats faced by the same migratory birds when they spend half the year elsewhere.

Tracking migratory birds

The example of the swift nesting in the Imperial Palace in Beijing springs to mind. Swifts are a family of birds, the Apodidae - the fastest in the world that spend ten months of the year on their wings without landing. To study these swifts researchers fitted geolocators to several birds and discovered their remarkable routes flying to South Africa and back without touching the ground.  Four species of swift are being considered for potential listing on the CMS appendices, but not yet the Common Swift, though there is concern over its declining population – likely due to a decline in insect numbers being reported in many parts of the world.

India, which hosted the last CMS CoP in 2020, is also important for migratory species, such as elephants and tigers on land, whales, turtles and sharks in the Indian Ocean, and birds flying over - from Siberian Cranes to Greater Flamingos and from Amur Falcons to Blue Throats - the sub-continent provides a welcoming ground for them whether seasonal habitat or transition halts en route elsewhere. 

While birds seek breeding grounds, university campuses are breeding grounds for researchers on the fascinating science of bird migration. We have not only not understood their language but we also do not know fully their behaviour patterns - how do birds find their destination without Google Maps; how do they communicate with each other in planning and halting without the internet and iPhones?  

Keeping track of the migratory birds visiting the university campus, and how the impact of climate change would impact the migration of migratory birds, are among the subjects being promoted for research in universities across the globe. These include Beijing University, Royal University of Bhutan, University of SJP in Sri Lanka, HNB Garhwal University in India which are in the network of the Green TERRE Foundation.  Other universities around the world are welcome to join the network.

(Redmond is Senior Wildlife Consultant for the Born Free Foundation and Ambassador for the UN’s Convention of Migratory species. He is also Head of Conservation for Ecoflix, ( https://ecoflix.comthe world's first not-for-profit TV channel and streaming platform dedicated to animals and the planet. He is an Ambassador for the CMS since 2010. Shende is Founder-Director of Green TERRE Foundation whose flagship project Smart Campus Cloud Network-SCCN (www.sccnhub.com)  brings together global universities to implement relevant Sustainable Development Goals, Biodiversity and Net-Zero Carbon Neutrality in and around the campus.)

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