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Insect declines threaten migratory bird species

To mark World Migratory Bird Day 2024 attention is being focused on the importance of insects and their impact on migratory birds.

The theme: Protect Insects, Protect Birds highlights the importance of insects for insectivorous migratory birds which rely on a variety of insects for their energy as they migrate north in winter. A reduction in insect populations threatens the survival of these species.

The decline in insects worldwide is being caused by not only habitat loss, but also the use of pesticides, which have the knock-on effect of increasing bird and other insectivore mortalities.

Although no official figures have been released yet, early indications are that there have been fewer Lesser Kestrels and Amur Falcons visiting South Africa this year.  While insect declines may be a contributing factor, it may also be attributed to the fact that there was exceptional rainfall further north in East Africa resulting in migratory birds remaining in areas of abundant resources instead of travelling further south for food — to South Africa, for example. That is why there may have been lower numbers of migratory falcons and other species such as White Stork in southern Africa this past summer.

Counts conducted across South Africa by Endangered Wildlife Trust field officers, particularly in the Northern Cape, North West, Mpumalanga and KwaZulu-Natal in January and February 2024 range from thousands of Falcons and Kestrels in the Hanover area on 20 January 2024 to only a few hundred at a roost in Standerton, Klerksdorp, in Underberg, Victoria West and Beaufort West Areas.  Between 160 and 180 of the raptors were counted at De Aar in February this year  .  These figures are still being collated for official publication.

The report on the Status of the World’s Migratory Species and the review of the Mid-Term Implementation Action Plan to Conserve African-Eurasian Vultures (Vulture MsAP) released at the United Nations Convention on Migratory Species in March 2024 shows that over the past 30 years, 70 CMS-listed migratory species – including the Egyptian vulture– have become more endangered.  The report highlights habitat loss, degradation and fragmentation, as well as over-exploitation alongside climate change, pollution and invasive species as having profound impacts on migratory species.

It recognises that the widespread use of pesticides in intensive agriculture is a key factor in the reported declines in insect populations. Many of these substances also have a secondary poisoning effect on birds that may feed on insects killed by the pesticides.

The decline in insect numbers can result in food shortage for a wide range of species, not least the many insectivorous migratory birds heading north from South Africa to Europe, the Middle East and Asia for the winter.

The theme for World Migratory Bird Day 2024 is Protect Insects, Protect Birds, focusing the attention on the importance of insects and the impact the reduction in this species has on migratory birds.  The decline in insects affects the timing, duration and overall success of bird migrations, says the United Nations Environment Programme.

Birds play an important role in the natural environment, especially in pest control.   Besides a shortage of insects, an over-population of insects in some areas due to, for example locust plagues, can also affect migratory birds as plant health is compromised and agriculture is harmed. Extensive use of certain pesticides in locust and quelea control in Africa also has a substantial impact on non-target species, including a wide range of migratory raptors that make use of these species as a food source.

The Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT) plays an important role in securing natural environments for migratory birds through collaboration within the United Nations Convention on Migratory Species (CMS) and projects being undertaken to restore wetlands and other habitats along migratory routes across Africa, including a focus on cranes through the EWT/International Crane FoundSation partnership.

The UN report on the World’s Migratory Species was a compilation of the review of the Mid-Term Implementation Action Plan to Conserve African-Eurasian Vultures (Vulture MsAP) in which the EWT played a significant role after the organisation was contracted through a CMS Raptors Memorandum of Understanding in April 2023 to lead the process. The EWT’s Vultures for Africa Program Manager, Andre Botha served as project leader.   He was joined by the EWT’s Jane Doherty, representatives from BirdLife International, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the Vulture Conservation Foundation, supported by the Coordinating Unit of the CMS Raptors MoU.  Jane Doherty was appointed as project intern in the employ of the EWT and was invaluable during the engagement with focal points, analysis of data and drafting of the report.

In line with the report’s call for greater action, the EWT joins countries and communities around the world to support the need to expand efforts to not only tackle the illegal and unsustainable taking of migratory species, but also to increase efforts to tackle climate change, habitat loss for both migratory birds and insects and to address issued such as noise, chemical and plastic pollution which affects all migratory species.

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