Bird Conservation with ornithologist Cagan Sekercioglu

I recently attended a talk about the Future of Bird Conservation with University of Utah ornithologist Cagan Sekercioglu. In this talk he outlined the threats of our current lifestyle to bird populations, as well as the necessary steps that need to be put into place to reverse these threats.

Cagan (pronounced "Shawn")is a conservation ecologist, ornithologist, tropical biologist, and nature photographer. He has conducted ornithological fieldwork in Alaska, Angola, Colorado, Costa Rica, Ethiopia, Turkey and Uganda to investigate the ecological factors behind the extinction-proneness of certain groups of birds. Read the rest of his bio and about his current projects here.

Cagan began his talk by stressing that biology only goes so far in saving the world's endangered birds. More interest needs to be paid to the field of Environmental Law, as this is where and how the important decisions are made about the environment. Environmental lawyers have social and media training, which is important in educating the public about conservation issues. Public education is quickly becoming the most crucial step in the future of conservation.

So why birds? For Cagan, birds are an ideal model to study because they are well known, they look pretty, and people like them. They are the most well-known of all studied species. They also play important roles in the environment as seed dispersers, pollinators, and insect control agents.

The most threatened bird groups are the scavengers, piscivores, nectarivores, berbivores, and frugivores. Cagan painted an informative picture of how the disappearance of a single bird species can have drastic effects on an environment - effects that most people may not even realize. He used the Indian Vulture as an example. Indian Vultures (native to India) are functionally extinct, which means that, though they have not disappeared completely, there are so few individuals that they no longer play an ecological role in the environment. The Indian Vulture population has dwindled because of the high amounts of antibiotics and medicines that farmers inject into their cattle. The vultures, which feed upon cow carcasses, ingest the medicines and are poisoned. The feral dogs of India have increased immensely to fill in the scavenger gap, and with this, human rabies deaths have also increased immensely. This has cost the Indian economy billions of dollars in labor loss due to sickness and deaths among workers (an estimation rests at 32 billion US dollars). So, in this case, it pays to save birds.

Cagan described the impact of climate change on the world's bird populations. An estimate that has been reached by a number of different research by different people, including Cagan and his research team, has been set at about a 30% loss of all land-bird species by the year 2100. He explained that warming has already happened at an unnatural rate and that we need to focus now on keeping it from escalating even more.

The last thing he talked about was agricultural landscapes, and how they are expanding. Unfortunately, farming and agriculture has been the biggest factor in habitat destruction. But there are ways, as he described, of incorporating agricultural land into a sustainable lifestyle. For example, just the simple act of leaving a few tall trees throughout a pastureland can have positive effects on bird populations. Tanagers have been shown to make use of even a few widely-spaced trees in their movement patterns. I've mentioned in previous blogs how coffee farmers can benefit from biodiversity in their farms. By planting a series of trees instead of a single coffee plant, the coffee plant receives shade from the other trees and the local wildlife can still use the area for living and nesting. Local people benefit greatly from conservation education. Ecotourism has become a great solution to many of the destructive habits of becoming "civilized". We all have the means to live sustainably, and if we can all reach this way of life, we can save what's left of our amazing planet.

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