Thursday, 25 August 2016

Birdwatch - latest editorial

Issue 291 | September 2016

Earlier this year, I visited a fascinating museum exhibition on extinction. As I stood reading the labels on mounted specimens of Great Auk, Ivory-billed Woodpecker (below right) and Passenger Pigeon, I realised I was alone. Other visitors breezed past the display cabinets showing off our lost natural history, probably without even realising the significance of the exhibits they contained.

Immortalised in historical art works but with no perceived connection to the 21st century, perhaps the Dodo and other ‘gone birds’ seem irrelevant. But as our new three-part series on extinct birds shows, this is not just a historical issue – one of the underlying themes in David Callahan’s look at the birds we have lost is that we are in the middle of the sixth great extinction. This time, it is not a result of climatic cycles or meteorological Armageddon – we are largely responsible for this mass extinction ourselves.

In some respects, in Europe we are grimly lucky in that very few bird species seem to be disappearing in recent years, whereas in the developing world some vanish every year. But we certainly can’t rest on our conservation laurels: the inclusion of Passenger Pigeon in the article stands as a stark reminder that European Turtle Dove’s population is nose-diving. We seem powerless to stop this, despite the mass deployment of publicity and protest to stop hunters in places like Malta and Cyprus from killing the species in spring, as it heads to its shrinking breeding grounds.

With human populations still increasing and needing to exploit the planet’s few remaining untapped resources and damaging already fragmented habitats, preventing any bird species from completely dying out is sometimes an insurmountable challenge, but conservation organisations rise to this and have managed to save many for the near-future at least.

No one expects billions of humans not to leave some kind of mark on the planet, but there must be a way we can do this without continually erasing the work of millions of years of evolution.


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