[From Tara Proud, Species Recovery Officer in our "Birds Without Borders" Team]
Today, exactly 100 years ago, the North American passenger pigeon went extinct. We know the precise time and location of this event - 13:00 in Cincinnati Zoo, USA. And we know the name of that last representative of a species – Martha.
What is exceptional is that just 50 years earlier, the passenger pigeon was the most abundant bird in North America and probably the world. There were around three to five billion passenger pigeons at the time that Europeans discovered America. Imagine how it must have felt to witness the wildlife spectacle of their huge flocks – a mile wide and up to 300 miles long – darkening the sky from morning until evening as hundreds of millions of passenger pigeons moved across the landscape. The vast flocks were poetically likened by the naturalist John Muir to ‘a mighty river in the sky... flowing over from horizon to horizon’.
For those that witnessed these incredible flocks, it must have seemed utterly inconceivable that the passenger pigeon could become extinct. Yet, infamously, this is precisely what happened. Humans drove them to extinction in just a few decades through habitat loss and unsustainable hunting. Disease is thought to have played a role in their precipitous decline too.
The story is unsettlingly similar to that of the turtle dove here in the UK. The parallels are striking. Both being migratory doves. Both being threatened by habitat loss, unsustainable hunting and disease. Passengers pigeons plummeted to extinction in just a few decades and turtle doves are heading the same way. Turtle doves are the UK’s fastest declining bird species – currently their numbers are halving every six years. Today, numbers in the UK are just 5% of what they were in 1970. At this rate, complete extinction of the turtle dove as a breeding species in the UK is a real possibility.
It’s too late for passenger pigeons, but 100 years on we don’t have to accept that turtle doves will suffer the same fate.
You can help turtle doves in a number of ways. Next time you go food shopping look out for the Fair to Nature bumblebee logo of conservation grade - this simple choice means you will be supporting the wildlife friendly farming that is critical for turtle doves and other farmland wildlife. You can provide food and nesting sites for turtle doves in your garden or farm. If you’ve seen turtle doves this year then submit your records to www.birdtrack.co.uk.
One person who has been motivated to go the extra mile – literally - to help support turtle doves is Wildlife enthusiast, Tristan Reid. He made a pledge to run 1000 miles during 2014 in aid of Operation Turtle Dove. So far, Tristan has run an incredible 10 marathons and a total of 748 miles! If you’d like to support his efforts, please donate via Tristan’s Just Giving site here. All the donations go to support Operation Turtle Dove.
Operation Turtle Dove was launched in May 2012 to stop our turtle doves following the same path as passenger pigeons. We are identifying the primary causes of the decline through research right across their long migration. We then develop urgent practical solutions – such as advising farmers how they can provide food for turtle doves on their land.
To find out more about how you can support our work go to www.operationturtledove.org.
Passenger Pigeon by Tim Hough (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
[From John Day, Urban Adviser]
I have been at the RSPB since 1999 and for the past eight years developing my role as Urban Adviser. Part of that role, includes swifts as a core work area as they are a priority species having declined in the UK by 39% over the past two decades.
I have helped with the gradual development of the Swift Inventory since its inception back in 2009. It is hoped it will be more widely used by planners as a conservation tool to help inform them on where to target swift provision in planning applications. The inventory is already helping in some parts of the country, where I work closely with colleagues in support of the incredible work they do to encourage planners and the construction industry to include nest provision in new buildings. It was great to have the opportunity in presenting a summary of that work at the recent Cambridge International Swift Conference. A video of the conference including a clip of the workshop I ran with colleagues for planners can be viewed here.
The inventory has also helped open other conversations beyond swifts. We find ourselves talking to planners and decision makers about the wider environmental benefits of green space for other urban wildlife as well as the health and social well-being benefits it provides.
I sometimes underestimate how far we have come in the last few years. Looking back to those early days, I don’t think it was ever envisaged reaching the point we are at this quickly. We are now on the verge of nest cavity bricks being incorporated into buildings as naturally as you would consider plumbing in the central heating.
With their scimitar wings and high-pitched screech, swifts are the epitome of summer in any town or city. Without doubt, they are a part of what ‘makes’ the small market town where I live and it wouldn’t be the same without them.
This year swifts returned to the town, as usual in the first week of May, but remained inconspicuous. I’m pleased to say that they seemed to have a successful breeding season this year, and nests that I noticed on my walks have been logged on the inventory , have you logged yours?
[Posted on behalf of John Day, Urban Advisor]
Hello, my name is Sammie Swift, you may have seen me and my relatives this summer over the houses where you live. In fact, I may even live down your street and have reared my young in a small cavity just behind the bargeboards of your house.
I'm on my way back to spend the winter in Africa now but as I leave, my visit has again been marred with some rather sad moments for me and my relatives. It has left me wondering how you would feel if you'd been out getting in a bit of shopping for the family and when you return, your house has been demolished and your children discarded into a nearby builders skip or hedge.
We love coming to spend summer in your country and raising our families. But, increasingly each year the older buildings in which we've been rearing our families for decades are having their roofs removed and renovated. I know how important it is for us all to keep warm even for us swifts, but there are better ways of managing the work where it will not destroy our nests sites. Doing this work in the summer is illegal and there have been at least two incidents where my relatives have been evicted and their babies left to die. The police have been notified of these incidents.
We are only here for a short while (May-Aug) so there is still enough time, with the reliable weather needed, to carry out these repairs legally. When you carry out the work can I please make a special plea to all of you thinking of having your roof repaired, or if you know any roofing contractors: please help keep our existing homes accessible and make some additional ones for us.
My family is getting smaller, in fact for every 10 of us you might have seen 25 years ago you'll now only see 7. Being quite a sociable person I would like to spend my summer visits to your country in more of their company. There are lots of ways you can help and there's no shortage of information that tells you how to help us when you are doing the work. Try logging onto our website and downloading the information you need. That way you can stay warm and we will get to keep our homes and if you are really kind, it would be greatly appreciated if you could make some new nests for us as well.