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Study: Protection of IBAs, other habitats used by migratory birds ‘unequal and ineffective’

Piping Plover by Kim Caruso
Piping Plover in Newbury, Massachusetts, by Kim Caruso

Scientists from the Wildlife Conservation Society, BirdLife International, and universities in Australia, California, and England are calling for greater international collaboration to save migratory birds, many of which are at risk of extinction due to loss of habitat along their flight paths.

More than 90 percent of all migratory birds are inadequately protected due to poorly coordinated conservation around the world, a new study published today in the journal Science reveals.

The research found huge gaps in the conservation of migratory birds, particularly across China, India, and parts of Africa and South America, but also in wealthier countries like the United States and Canada.

“More than half of migratory bird species travelling the world’s main flyways have suffered serious population declines in the past 30 years,” says lead author Claire Runge, of the University of Queensland, in Brisbane, Australia. “This is due mainly to unequal and ineffective protection across their migratory ranges and the places they stop to refuel along their routes.”

The study found that of 1,451 migratory bird species on Earth, 1,324, or 91 percent, had inadequate protection for at least one part of their migration pathway. Eighteen species had no protection in their breeding areas and two species had no protection at all along their whole route.

Red-spectacled Amazon, a migratory parrot, receives little formal protection. Photo courtesy Hamadryades
Red-spectacled Amazon, a migratory parrot, receives little formal protection. Photo courtesy Hamadryades

For example, less than four percent of the range of Brazil’s Red-spectacled Amazon, a migratory parrot, is protected. And the Great Knot, a once-abundant migratory shorebird of eastern Asia and Australia, is now classified as globally Vulnerable. Protected areas cover only seven percent of its distribution during migration, where the species congregates in high numbers.


For migratory species listed as Threatened by BirdLife International, less than three percent have sufficient protected areas. Similarly, only 3.3 percent of migratory seabird species receive enough protection.

The wealth of a nation was a poor indicator of the protection it offers migratory species, Runge reports. Many Central American countries with low gross domestic product were found to meet targets for more than 75 percent of their migratory species, but the same species receive less protection in the U.S. and Canada.

The team also examined more than 8,200 Important Bird Areas — places that have been identified as critical locations for bird populations. They found that just 22 percent are completely protected, and 41 percent only partially overlap with protected areas.

In Louisiana, for example, the Barataria Terrebonne Important Bird Area, south of New Orleans, supports an important wintering population of Piping Plover, but less than half of the site is protected. BirdLife lists it as an “IBA in Danger.”


And in far northern Canada, Lancaster Sound Polynya Important Bird Area, north of Baffin Island, is almost entirely unprotected. The sound — a stopover site for as many as 14 million Dovekies — is threatened by recreational activities, shipping lanes, and other disturbances.

“Establishing new reserves to protect the unprotected sites — and more effectively managing all protected areas for migratory species — is critical,” says co-author Stuart Butchart, head of science at BirdLife.

Richard Fuller, of the Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions at the University of Queensland, says the results highlight an urgent need to coordinate protected area designation along birds’ full migration routes.


“For instance, Germany has protected areas for over 98 percent of the migratory species that pass its borders, but fewer than 13 percent of its species are adequately protected across their global range,” he says. “It won’t matter what we do in Australia or in Europe if these birds are losing their habitat somewhere else. They will still perish. We need to work together far more effectively around the world if we want our migratory birds to survive into the future.” — Matt Mendenhall, Managing Editor

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Read the abstract

Claire A. Runge, James E. M. Watson, Stuart H. M. Butchart, Jeffrey O. Hanson, Hugh P. Possingham, Richard A. Fuller. Protected areas and global conservation of migratory birds. Science, December 4, 2015. Abstract.


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