Human activity threatens migrating birds

17 August 2022

The challenges that our wildlife face in their annual migrations is daunting. War causes untold human suffering but, at the same time, the invisible or silent victims of war are often the birds and mammals. In seeking out challenges from my readers, the very first response I received was about the war in the Ukraine and the closing of Belarus’s largest wildlife NGO. Many of my readers live in countries impacted by this particular human conflict – Latvia, Estonia, Belarus, Romania, Poland, and, of course, The Ukraine and Russia. When they think of migration challenges both in the spring and now the autumn – global human conflicts were the first on their list. Other challenges to migration include habitat destruction, hunting for pleasure, climate change which I am now going to call global heating and climate breakdown thanks to Bill McGuire’s informative and straight to the point book, Hothouse Earth. Global heating has a huge impact on our raptors as we have seen from the heat domes that have killed chicks in the Pacific Northwest. Global heating also causes the ocean, river, and lake waters to warm killing the fish that our beloved ospreys and eagles rely on for food. Water pollution by microplastics and plastics is causing great harm to migrating birds along with the tonnes of human waste dumped into the oceans. Elements of the modern world – glass and electric lighting kill billions of birds while human apathy and meanness takes a toll. If you take all of the threats together the most significant single cause has its roots in our lives – human lives.

The war in Ukraine that began on 24 February 2022 is having devastating effects on wildlife, including farm animals and migrating birds. This includes many challenges such as all out destruction of protected sites, wildfires that have destroyed forests killing the wildlife and their homes, chemical pollutions caused by the shelling, soil and water pollution including oil spillages harm marine biocenosis forming, air pollution, waste water flows directly into the Dnipro River, and the sheer loss of biodiversity that once enjoyed the conservation areas of the region. The industrial, atomic energy, and nuclear waste dumps are cause for real concern. An expert on how wars impact our environment, Thor Hansen, says, “If we are concerned about biodiversity and conservation in the world, we need to be worried also about conflict and patterns of conflict.”

The Ukraine is home to 35% of Europe’s biodiversity which includes 70,000 plant and animal species. Many are rare. At its onset, fires started by military attacks had damaged 100,000 hectares of natural ecosystems, according to the European Forest Fire Information systems. 900 protected areas have been degraded with some completely destroyed by shelling, bombing, oil pollutants, and military maneuvers. This area is known as the Emerald Network, conservation areas created to preserve habitats and species. There are 14 wetland (or Ramsar) sites that are internationally recognized that are under the threat of complete destruction. “These include the large shallow lagoons and the largest island of the Black Sea in Karkinitska and Dzharylgatska bays; the Dnipro river delta, a refuge for nature in a region known for its huge agricultural fields; and the bogs, meanders, and natural meadows of the Desna river floodplains in the Sumy region.” These provide shelter, food, and nesting sites for birds of prey. What was once a biodiversity hotspot is now nothing more than a target of the war.

The wetlands around the Dnipro River are destroyed or threatened.

In the map below you can see the river that runs through Kyiv, then Cherkasya down to Dnipro flowing to Odessa and the Black Sea.

The Black Sea near Odessa known as the Black sea Biosphere Reserve is a haven for the migrating birds including Karl II who traditionally stops and spends several days here, if not weeks. It is the site for 120,000 birds who also spend their entire winter here including the White-tailed Eagle, the Red-breasted Merganser to name a couple of the raptors and shore birds.

‘B’ sent an article discussing the symbolic importance of the storks to the people of The Ukraine with horrific images of destruction and recovery. It is an excellent read!

Other articles on the devastating effects of war on wildlife are:

‘A Silent Victim’ provides us with insights into how every aspect of nature is lost when human conflicts take place.

The ongoing destruction of habitat was right up there with human conflicts globally – war also destroys habitat as does the ever increasing human population’s need for bigger houses and land. Hunting and climate change are also included in this really interesting article that ‘CE’ sent to us. The research comes out of East Anglia University.

Here is an article on hunting pressures on birds as well as lighting.

Chris Packham accuses the Maltese for the slaughtering of migrating birds who fly over the island. It is not just the turtle doves which sadly can be shot legally but, many other birds including Ospreys that are killed illegally. Everyone seems to turn a blind eye when it comes to enforcement. — It is not just the Maltese. Lebanon is known for the shooting of storks so much so that a letter was sent from Stjepan Vokic to Lebanon’s President to please appeal to his citizens to stop killing the migrating birds for sport.

Haliburton dead bird” by andres musta is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

It is easy to turn off the lights during migration to save the lives of hundreds of thousands of birds. Here is how you do it:

The National Audubon Society is urging everyone around the planet to turn those lights off. Is night time lighting one of the biggest direct threats to our raptors who are flying south in the autumn? It certainly appears that it could be!!!!!! The following article from the Audubon Society is extremely informative and it also gives sample letters that can be used by those who have the authority to turn out the lights in public buildings.

So is the biggest killer of migrating birds night time lighting? Take the lead from the Audubon Society and work towards darkening the skylines everywhere! It could save billions and billions of birds.

Ordinary citizens can help save the lives of billions of birds according to the Wake Audubon Society in North Carolina where Raleigh goes ‘lights out’ for our birds. Each of us should turn off all of lights -including outdoor ones- from 2300-0600 beginning the 15th of August until the end of migration. Spread the news to your neighbours and friends!

Wandering Albatross dance…” by Chantal Steyn is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

‘L’ reminds us that migrating sea birds continue to be endangered by the long line fishing boats as well as plastics floating in the ocean. It is not unusual to see varied species of Albatross and Petrels dying because they are full of plastic and not fish! This article states that the pollution of ocean waters is killing more albatross than was first thought.

A Warning” by angrysunbird  is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Our heating planet with the changes in weather patterns and the intensity of floods, droughts, hurricanes, and wildfires add challenges around the world to the birds that migrate as well as those that don’t. Rivers and wetlands dry up, droughts cause a lack of food during migration, hurricanes are nothing short of devastating.

The fires and the drought brought on to southwestern France is unprecedented in the country’s history.

The Loire Valley in France has not been this dry in 2000 years.

Conservation Without Borders posted this today – speaking directly about the harm happening to the Ospreys this moment as they fly through France to get to their winter quarters from the wildfires and the drought.

Wildfires in the United States and Europe have caused migrating birds to fall out of the skies – dead. We can help halt some of the wildfires. Did you know that portable disposable barbecues are causing immense destruction by fire?

Wild Fires in the Southwestern United States” by NASA Johnson is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.
Moon Over Forest Fire” by Old Shoe Woman is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

In her new book, Cold Canyon Fire Journals. Green Shoots and Silver Linings in the Ashes, author Robin Lee Carlson gives us insight into her 5 year study of the aftermath of the Wragg Nature Reserve fire. She includes not only the horrific results of the wildfire but a glimpse into how the land and the wildlife recovered.

In my own province, continuous torrential rain caused flooding that impacted the spring nesting of all the birds that migrate through and to Manitoba. It caused the Bald Eagle nests to be swept away at Hecla Island and the duck and geese eggs to be covered with water at many local ponds. The result was fewer and fewer hatchlings this year. The muddy waters made it difficult for many raptors who live on fish to see their prey.

brown flood city” by is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

This morning The Guardian has a discussion of wind turbines. All I am going to say is that it is an easy fix to paint one of the blade a different colour to save the birds because governments and utilities seem intent on placing them in migratory paths. It is incorrect to compare the number of birds killed by wind turbines with that of domestic cats as many of the utility company charts will show to convince us they are safe as they are. They can wipe out entire species such as the Marbled Murrelets over the projects lifetime. The threat posed by wind turbines grows with each facility constructed in a high-risk area for birds.

Pesticides are lethal poisons. They can kill migratory birds directly or they can kill them indirectly by destroying their food sources. There is positively no ‘Eco Green’ solution to keeping a lawn pristine and green.

Pesticides also cause migratory birds to lose their way and can cause considerable weight loss. Neonicotinoids harm songbirds in addition to the pollinators. They are neuro-active poisons that are related to nicotine. In Canada these are marketed as : Imidacloprid, Clothianidin, and Thiamethoxam.

‘L’ thought outside the box for many of her suggestions to the threats and challenges that harm migrating birds. They include exhaustion -flying through bad weather or being forced off course and having to fly hundreds of miles extra; starvation when large flocks of birds descend on a single area and there is not enough food for all; predation for the song birds from domestic cats; disease such as Bird Flu that passes quickly through large flocks of birds; natural disasters; and juvenile inexperience.

Many of those living near the two major oil disasters in the last twenty years were eager to share the harm that millions of barrels of oil being dumped into pristine conditions can do to wildlife. I have only to close my eyes and I can see the water fowl covered with oil in Louisiana and the volunteers rushing to wash them with Dawn dishwashing liquid. That was the Deep Water Horizon oil spill of 2010. In his book, The Tarball Chronicles. A Journey Beyond the Oiled Pelican and into the Heart of the Gulf Oil Spill, David Gessner tries to show the connectedness of life and how emergencies such as the Deep Water Horizon and the Exxon Valdez spills are threats from the bottom of the food chain to the top. He also gives us a glib look at the reporting of these huge life changing moments and how the press runs from one disaster to another – while nothing changes.

The presence of active wildlife rehabilitation centres is not just for local injuries. The migrating birds are on the move. What happens if they get injured or sick? who cares for them? What if the current or future economic crises make it impossible for donations to come in to keep the centres open? what if volunteers do not have the funds for petrol to drive for hours to pick up and deliver birds to care? The result is that there is no place to care for any wildlife – no short term care and certainly no long term facility to help them recover.

Our beloved feathered friends have no choice. Their food sources dry up in the places where they breed during the spring and summer as winter returns. They are hard wired to fly south to their winter homes and north in the spring to their breeding grounds. They seek out routes that offer easy flying and good food sources. They seek out mountain ranges that offer thermals to help them not use so much energy in flight. Many fly up and down the coasts where there is plenty of food. Those Ospreys on the east coast of the United States may winter in Florida or along the Gulf. Many will, however, travel during hurricane season over Cuba and down to Venezula and Brazil to their wintering spots. As ‘L’ reminds us, the inexperienced juveniles may have trouble. The kilometres that the birds undertake is hard to imagine and yet they will make this trip twice a year – some traveling more than 10,000 km. It is up to us to help in any way that we can. We owe it to them.

Thank you to everyone who wrote in and for those of you reading my blog this morning. What a joy it was to open the mail and see your thoughts. I must be the most fortunate blogger on the planet to have such empathetic readers who care deeply for our feathered friends. Urge everyone to help make their journey an easier one.


  1. Linda Kontol says:

    Mary Ann this was an awesome report!
    Thank you and everyone who participated ! I hope and pray enough people will get the word out to the whole world so people who don’t know these things about migrating birds and the ones who dont think it’s important will read this and help them understand how important it truly is!
    Have a great day Mary Ann and everyone!

    1. Wasn’t it nice that so many responded? I was so pleased. If we could only get to the ‘others’ that need to hear and understand. Thank you for your contribution.

  2. B says:

    Thanks, Mary Ann, for the extensive report on the challenges faced in migration. The risks for the birds are plenty great enough without the extra risks that we humans introduce. And we won’t be able to reduce those risks without increasing awareness, as your report helps to do.

    1. You are so right, Bill. Human apathy and the distancing of human activity from nature does not help! I so wish a lightbulb would go off..but we each do whatever we can to help, like yourself.

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