Will climate change put at risk European bird species?
The signs of climate change that Europe has been witnessing in the spring and summer of this year have severely impacted some of the country’s bird species. Persistent rain during the spring months, storms and heavy floods decimated the young population of white storks in an unprecedented measure. Many of the newly hatched young died in their nests, elsewhere nests remained completely empty. In this edition of Panorama I talk to ornithologist Petr Voříšek about the fate of this and other endangered bird species in connection with the ongoing environmental changes.
"We have a nationwide survey –a survey of almost every white stork nest in the country – and we will have the results (collected and analyzed) sometime later this year so this is anecdotic evidence that we have now, but it is still quite hard when we see the reports from almost all the regions in the country about this high mortality of white stork young.”
How are these nests monitored?
“It is easy in the case of white storks. Everyone recognizes those and because it is an urban species in the Czech Republic which breeds close to people in the villages it is easy to observe. We have a network of local coordinators who get data from the locals, often these are not ornithologists just local people who send us reports on when the storks arrive, whether they are breeding, incubating, if possible the number of young, breeding successes and breeding failures – so we have quite a detailed data base going back for several decades.”
So it’s done by people –we are not talking about camera systems or anything like that?
I understand that white storks are monitored in close to 300 localities on the territory of the Czech Republic and there are about 900 nests. According to available reports in 15 districts at least there were no young at all – does that mean that after a while someone climbs up to the nest to check out the situation?
“Yes, in most cases the young are ringed. Someone climbs up and does that and reports on the situation. That is not the case everywhere, of course. Some nests are hard to reach but we try to cover as much as possible.”
Is there any way of helping these birds in such extreme conditions or is it not advisable to interfere?
“Well, it is very, very hard to help them. Of course, if someone finds an injured or exhausted bird there is a network of “rehabilitation centers” across the country where specialists will take care of them. But there is no way to influence the adverse weather and these extremes which are becoming more and more usual.”
From what we know of this spring - is it a significant loss to the stork population in this country?
“A different question is what the effect would be if these extremes come more and more often, which seems to be what is happening. As the climate changes, extreme weather events are becoming more common so what will happen in the long-term is hard to predict and we can already observe the effect of climate change on other species.”
How has climate change affected the bird population as such? Are some birds moving elsewhere and others coming here? Is there any point in trying to prevent this or should we simply let Nature take its course.
“We can hardly prevent climate change happening – though of course we should work towards reducing the effects of climate change, reducing green-gas emissions and so on, but some extent of climate change seems unavoidable now, so as regards nature conservation we just need to think about how to help birds to adapt to climate change. Definitely some species will suffer, some species will profit. European analyses suggest that approximately one third of European bird species will profit from these changes, but two-thirds will lose. So the question is how to help those losers to adapt, to move their distribution ranges, not to hit them with other things like intensive agriculture, persecution and so on. So it is indirect help and it is extremely difficult.”
“ Yes, to a certain extent this is true, but for many species going elsewhere simply does not exist –there is no alternative, like for the high mountain species. They do not have the option to go further up…the northern species are in a similar situation and also some southern species which are confined to very specific habitats. If these habitats disappear they are in trouble as well. So for some species it is definitely true that they can move elsewhere –the question is how many birds cannot do it because there will not be any habitat available for them and the question is how many of them can move without being adversely affected by other things like the local agriculture or persecution or whatever. “
When you say help them adapt – what do you mean exactly?
“Well, not to hit them by other negative factors like intensive agriculture for example. Because say a species is living in an area suitable for it and the next suitable location could be hundreds or thousands of kilometers away. So the species needs to move which is a long-term process that takes years and the species must have the possibility to find enough food in-between these sites, it needs a suitable habitat not just for feeding but also for breeding. But there are other areas where we would hardly be able to help because the effects of climate change are very diverse."
If we look at the combination of climate change, agricultural change and changes in architecture - is there any bird species particularly at risk – what about birds of prey for instance?
“Well, basically these long-distance migrants are at higher risk because of their time-constraints, they have difficulties adapting their arrival time to the mentioned changes. Birds of prey are not in this particular case really endangered, they suffer from direct or indirect persecution by humans and the situation in this respect is improving slightly, so as concerns climate change birds of prey are not particularly threatened. There are other threats for them.”
Is there cooperation on European scale to try and protect these birds?
“Definitely there is cooperation, for a start there is cooperation in getting proper data on the situation in numbers, on changes in numbers and so on. There is cooperation in studying bird migration –by using ringing, a traditional but still useful method, and of course there is widespread European cooperation in the protection of bird species, there are priorities for the highly-threatened species and much more conservation efforts are being targeted towards them.
The episode featured today was first broadcast on August 1st, 2013.