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Why a proper record of birds in Africa is so important – for Europe

27 Nov 2017 - 16:30

Most of Europe’s birds head south each year around September to escape the northern winter. Some species only migrate as far south as southern Europe. But most cross the Mediterranean Sea to Africa. And many species cross the Sahara Desert to destinations in West Africa such as Nigeria and in East Africa, such as Kenya. Some travel as far south as South Africa.

These European birds are diligently monitored. Every April, during the breeding season in the early part of the northern summer, teams of citizen scientists in most European countries gather vast amounts of data on the distribution and densities of breeding – for almost every bird species. Thousands of citizen scientists are involved. They diligently generate the data in their leisure time.

Europe is also completing its second atlas of breeding birds. This provides a map, for each species, of the places where it has actually been recorded breeding. With this information resources can be dedicated to protecting the areas where birds breed, and to improving their breeding habitat.

But all this effort is worth little unless it is matched by carefully planned initiatives in the non-breeding season, in Africa. The problem is that there’s not much accurate or up-to-date knowledge about distributions and migration routes in non-breeding areas.

Development – cities, agriculture, mining and industry – is changing the face of Africa. The impact of climate change is predicted to hit Africa harder than any other continent. These factors will certainly affect the bird species that migrate to and from Europe to breed; for many species, more than half the year is spent in Africa.

If Europe is going to reap the benefits of conservation measures at home, the greatest need for research in ornithology that’s relevant to conservation is an understanding of where “their” birds migrate to when they head off to Africa.

That’s where the African Bird Atlas comes in.