A remarkable study published in Science (accessible in full here) by Rosenberg et al. (2019) estimates a loss of 2.9 billion birds from North America in only the past 50 years. This represents a decline of 29% in the total numbers of birds found in the USA and Canada in less than a single human generation. Although some bird species have benefited from focused conservation actions, many once-abundant species found across different habitats have become scarce or threatened. As the authors note, “declines in abundance can degrade ecosystem integrity, reducing vital ecological, evolutionary, economic and social services”.
Their grim assessment is based on robust data gathered over decades of fieldwork (most especially the long-running North American Breeding Bird Survey) and on analysis of biomass detected by a network of 143 weather radar stations, which pick up the signature of migratory birds.
The authors suggest that the declines in North America are driven (unsurprisingly) by habitat loss, agricultural intensification, and mortality driven directly by human actions, all exacerbated by that other global existential crisis for our species too, climate change.
As reported by Professor Mark Harris, an overseas Birds Korea member, in the United Nation’s Academic Impact on October 12th, climate change can work in many ways to drive declines: from increased storms flooding out nesting colonies to forcing a northward shift in distribution across increasingly fragmented landscapes.
These declines in North America’s bird populations are mirrored more or less across Europe, where decades of intensive research have been carried out by tens of thousands of birders participating in coordinated surveys. Again, conservation actions have been shown to work, but all the same many once-abundant species have declined terribly. As UK author Michael McCarthy describes so powerfully, there has been a “great thinning” in populations of birds and insects – and a loss of abundance of biodiversity as a whole.
How about here in East Asia, most especially here in the ROK?
In reality, we cannot know for certain because there is so little effort here to count birds methodically. There are still no large-scale, coordinated monitoring programs or nationwide breeding bird surveys. We cannot use radar to monitor bird movements in sensitive areas and there are few birdwatchers, and even fewer who count common birds (and then share their data through platforms like eBird). We therefore lack reasonable population estimates for the vast majority of the ROK’s bird species, and are already at least 50 years behind much of Europe and North America in starting to gather, organise and analyse data.
This means that if we try to follow the same research approach as taken in North America and Europe, it really will be decades before we have similarly robust data – if ever. By then, how much of the nation’s birdlife might have disappeared?
Even now, however, we can make coarse estimates and useful predictions, to help identify conservation priorities. For example, based on all available evidence, bird declines are likely to have been at least as severe here in the ROK over the past fifty years as they have been in North America and Europe. Indeed, they might well have been rather worse. The density of human population is higher and the rate of economic growth has been faster, causing massive changes across landscapes; food production is intense and increasingly industrialised and chemical-dependent; building codes and the growing number of feral cats enable mass mortality of wild birds in urban and rural landscapes alike through collisions and predation; and there are few conservation organisations or legal mechanisms to head-off the more destructive development projects – from massive reclamation projects to roads through wetlands and sensitive forest habitats.
Certainly, in the past fifty years, through the sacrifice and hard work of the nation, the ROK has grown from a very poor, largely rural nation to one of the world’s biggest economies. This is a great achievement and has benefited many. During the same period too, much forest has been restored – and now supports increasing populations of many bird species, as well as helping absorb some of industry’s polluting CO2. During the same fifty years, however, the majority of the nation’s tidal flats have also been destroyed; almost all of the rivers have been dammed; almost all grassland and natural freshwater wetlands have been converted; and many rice-field areas have become almost sterile and bird-less. These are the kinds of changes that have driven biodiversity loss, climate change and even social inequality.
I have been here for only twenty of the last fifty years. And the degradation of habitat and the decline of birds and the changes in the climate during the past two decades have all been relentless.
I remember large flocks of Barn Swallows and Chestnut Buntings during migration; larks breeding in agricultural landscapes; and hundreds of scoters wintering south to Busan. Can you?
I remember watching massive flocks of Baikal Teal each winter too – counting 690,000 together near Haenam in January 2008. Not for the last few winters, though.
The ROK is now surprisingly rich in environmental institutes and even has two government-run migratory bird research centres. But there are still almost no funds available to conduct surveys; and there is almost no training available to help birders count, and to share and analyse their data.
This is why Birds Korea – one of the nation’s smallest NGOs – still appears to be the only organization ever to try to identify population trends in all of the nation’s most regularly occurring bird species. In our 2014 ground-breaking report, Status of Birds, we gathered data and information from a range of published and unpublished sources to suggest trends in 365 of the nation’s most regularly-occurring species. In the absence of robust national monitoring programs, we still were able to identify massive declines in species as diverse as Mallard, Barn Swallow, Brown Shrike and Crested Lark – the latter species now effectively extirpated from the ROK, but listed as Least Concern that same year by the national Ministry of Environment.
The desire to help generate and share good data is also our main motivation for volunteering to help support eBird – through reviewing sightings, revising hotspots and translating the platform into Korean to encourage greater participation.
But we need to do more.
2020 is the last year in the UN’s decade on Biodiversity. It is the year in which the successes and failures in meeting the 2010 Aichi Biodiversity Targets will be assessed; and new agreements will be struck for fulfilling the 2030 Agenda on Sustainable Development. As our modest contribution, we would like to update our Status of Birds, to share with participants at the Convention of Biological Diversity COP in PR China.
We need your help if we are to try to do so.
Please consider joining Birds Korea (it only costs 10,000 won / month); or contact us to offer donations and technical support, for volunteering for translation or literature review – simply, helping us to help the birds.