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The Trouble with Birds: Extinction Threats and Conservation Successes

By February 9, 2022December 8th, 2023No Comments
Photo of a bald eagle flying against a clear blue sky. Bald eagles are a conservation success story and is no longer an endangered species. © Frank Gallagher
Bald eagles are a conservation success story and is no longer an endangered species. © Frank Gallagher

By Frank Gallagher, NANPA Blog Coordinator

Every few months, it seems, there are headlines about bird species threatened with extinction. A couple of years ago, it was that one in eight bird species worldwide was in danger of extinction. In Europe, one in five bird species is threatened. Within the statistics, however, one can find both good news and bad along with a compelling case for conservation photography. And it should come as no surprise that NANPA has some community science projects in which you can contribute to the knowledge base and help both science and conservation.

The bad news

A 2019 United Nations report found that about one million plant and animal species are threatened with extinction and that the rate of extinction is accelerating. The major culprits include changes in land use, climate change, pollution, invasive species, and what the report calls “exploitation,” which translates to overfishing, overhunting and poaching. The declines threaten the biodiversity of species and ecosystems.

According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species, almost 1,500 bird species are threatened. Another thousand species are considered “near threatened.” Together, that amounts to about a quarter of all bird species alive today. Many of those in danger are larger birds with slower reproduction rates. Others are native to isolated islands and specific locales. But the decline in numbers is wide spread.

It’s not just the number of species under threat that’s worrying, it’s also the rate at which species are headed for extinction. A 2019 study by Monroe, Butchart, Mooers and Bokma looked at extinction rate estimates over time, since 1500. They found that the fossil record predicts an average species will survive for about one to three million years. Since about 1500, 187 of approximately 11,000 bird species worldwide according to the World Animal Foundation have been declared extinct. Going by the fossil data, only two to five species would be expected to die off in that time, so we’re looking at an extinction rate much higher than normal.

The researchers then looked at data from the IUCN Red List at several points in time beginning in 1988 and found species were moving towards extinction at a much higher rate in the last few decades than the past five centuries. Instead or one to three million years, today’s data suggest a bird species would survive for only 5,000 years.

So, will we soon be living on a planet without any birds? No, for there is an encouraging word.

The good news

Monroe, et al., also found a “silver lining” in what conservation efforts have been able to achieve. When a threatened species is the subject of conservation efforts, it is twice as likely to survive as to go extinct.

The United Nations report also said it’s not too late and that sustained conservation efforts can make “transformative change.” In Europe, two bird species that were believed extinct have reappeared and the recovery of several others shows that conservation efforts can work.

While the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared 23 species, including 11 birds, extinct last year under the Endangered Species Act, it is important to note that since the Act was passed in 1973, 54 species have recovered enough to be removed from the list and 48 have improved from endangered to threatened.

Close-up photo of a dew-covered dragonfly. Sparkly Female Widow Skimmer © Sam Ray
Sparkly Female Widow Skimmer © Sam Ray

Conservation photography

Every day, conservation photographers are out in the field, documenting species, their behaviors, locations, numbers, and the ecosystems in which they’re found. Photographs provide scientists with important information and key insights towards understanding a species’ health, distribution, and population. When collected, these images document changes over time.

Conservation photographers tell stories, emotionally connecting people to species and ecosystems, educating folks, and giving them a reason to care about and help preserve the natural world.

We can see the impact when Sir David Attenborough, Melissa Groo, Joel Sartore, James Balog or Morgan Heim point their camera at nature. But everyday photographers can be conservation photographers, too.

A couple of photos taken with a phone by two bird watchers in Indonesia documented the existence of a bird not seen in the wild for 180 years. Those images spurred scientific inquiry and conservation efforts.

The Search for Lost Birds project is asking bird watchers and bird photographers around the world to keep an eye out for their “top 25 most wanted species.” Closer to home, iNaturalist, a joint initiative of the California Academy of Sciences and the National Geographic Society, allows users to share their photos and observations with naturalists and other scientists. The data users contribute goes to repositories like the Global Biodiversity Information Facility, where scientists and researchers can access vast numbers of observations from people like you.

Maybe, like Sam Ray, your photos (like the sparkly female widow skimmer above) and observations help local park naturalists track what’s appearing where and when. Maybe your photos, like mine, help a conservancy raise money or recruit volunteers. There are many ways nature photographers can help, beginning with NANPA’s database of community science projects.

Last year NANPA organized a Nature Photography Day iNaturalist BioBlitz with participants trying to identify and record as many species as possible during a set time period. We wrote about it here, here, here, and here. A number of rare species were found and documented by NANPA members and a lot of useful data was recorded.

Another important NANPA community science project with iNaturalist just launched last month. Forty seven words from the natural world—words like heron, otter and clover—are being dropped from the Oxford Junior Dictionary, replaced by technology-related words, because the nature terms are considered less a part of childhood experience. The Lost Words project hopes to “rejuvenate interest” in these words and lead to more engagement with nature by children by collecting photos showing how common and available these things are.

Whether you’re a founding member of the International League of Conservation Photographers or an amateur nature photographer, you can make a difference. So let’s charge up our batteries and get out there photographing, documenting, telling stories, and contributing to the knowledge base.

 Frank Gallagher headshotFrank Gallagher is a landscape and nature photographer based in the Washington, DC, area who specializes in providing a wide range of photography services to nonprofit organizations. He manages NANPA’s blog.

Instagram: @FrankGallagherPhoto
Facebook: Frank Gallagher Photography