Birds are an everyday fixture in our lives, from the very annoying, loud hadada ibis’s to the beautiful kingfishers, we see or hear them, but as we play a bigger and bigger role in the environment we are putting more and more pressure on bird populations. I spoke to Jo Balmer, a second year Masters student at Rhodes University about the birds of the area, the threats they face and what we can do to limit those threats.
First and foremost, there are no endemic bird species in the area, but there are birds in the area who are threatened. Hottentot Buttonquails, which are fynbos endemic, have remarkably been spotted in the area for the last few winters. Makhanda is a great place to spot the Knysna Woodpecker, which while widespread is still difficult to spot because of their sparse distribution.
The threats these and other birds face are all because of humans, from the broad effects of climate change forcing birds to use more energy than they consume to deal with the heat, to the devastating effects of rat poison not only on birds but all the warm and cold-blooded creatures that are natural rodent control.
Balmer explained to me that the effect of killing one rat with poison is not seen by the people who lay out the poison, they do not see the raptor catch and eat the dying rat, they do not see the raptor succumb to the poison, they do not see the full extent of trying to control a ‘pest’ that is already controlled by nature. Blamer recommends that instead of laying out rat poison and causing a massive disruption to the eco-system, people should focus on clearing up their gardens of rubbish.
There is a small window of time in which a bird that has eaten a poisoned rodent could be saved, the birds will be lethargic and will not fly away if you approach them.
The use of pesticides also has a serious effect on raptors and owls who eat the insects that have consumed plants doused in pesticides. What we never consider is the food-chain, everything is eaten by something else and so poisoning one link in that chain poisons the other links.
One of the more surprising things I learnt was that bird seed is threat to hatchlings that not many people know about. When they are still in the nest the baby birds need lots of protein to build up their strength, they get this protein from the food their parents provide them, but if the parents know that there is a constant, easy-to-access- supply of food in a very specific location, bird seed on a feeder, that is where they will collect the food for the hatchlings. The problem is that bird seed contains nearly no protein and all carbs, meaning that when the time comes for the chicks to leave the nest they are undernourished and may struggle to do so. Yes, it is helpful to leave out bird seed, but during the breeding and nesting months (spring and early summer) replace the seeds either with cheese or meal-worms, or leave out hair or any other material that can be used by the parents to build a strong nest.
There is one more threat to migrating bird populations that deserves our special attention, I feel that this threat has flown under the radar and needs to be brought to the attention of the public. It is the excessive trapping and hunting of migrating birds. Balmer explains that when the birds fly to Europe in winter they pass through an area that has become well known to hunters who “absolutely destroy” these migrating birds with their double-barrelled shotguns, dogs and traps, the birds that make it through what Balmer calls a “massacre” have to endure it again when the European winter sets in and they migrate south. The more attention this receives the more can be done to protect birds.
There are many reasons we need to protect birds and ensure that their populations remain stable or even grow. The consequences of the bird population disappearing are wide spread beyond the silence we would suddenly be subject to. Raptors act as pest control, much like snakes while some bird species act as pollinators for plants, in particular aloe populations would be affected and might even collapse. Birds also play a unique role in the food chain, by filling in any gaps that appear.
Birds are beautiful in voice and appearance, and yet we are oblivious to the threats we are creating for them, we need to be more aware of our actions and the consequences of those actions on the environment we rely on.