Photo: © Shutterstock.com/BFSmith. Kea: notoriously inquisitive, this species suffers from being offered unsuitable food. It’s now officially Endangered

 

Individual bird breeders must be involved more in essential conservation projects – zoos aren’t enough, argues David

 

LET’S set the scene with some stats. Out of roughly 10,000 avian species in the world, 13 per cent are now under threat, according to the latest IUCN Red List update, published earlier this year. Of that total, 222 species are now listed as Critically Endangered, in real threat of extinction.

The causes are many and varied.  New Zealand’s kea (Nestor notabilis), one of the strangest parrots in the world, is now Endangered as a result of being fed unhealthy treats by tourists. By contrast, numbers of the yellow-breasted bunting (Emberiza aureola) have plummeted because of ruthless trapping for food in China. Now listed as Critically Endangered, it has declined by 80 per cent during the past 13 years. Many seabirds have also been added to the list, thanks to pollution.

One clear thread is evident here: almost all the birds on the list are under threat to a greater or lesser extent because of our impact on the planet. Working to educate people and protecting avian species in the wild is obviously vital, yet given a decline on this scale, more needs to be done. Assessment must be case by case, but this demands time, which for many species is rapidly running out.

The way that our understanding of avian biology has grown since the 1980s, when captive breeding first started to become widespread within the birdkeeping community, offers hope in some instances. Yet zoos face being overwhelmed. There are fewer such institutions in the UK than there are endangered species, while even in the USA, there are only 350 zoological collections nationwide.

Zoos face a particular problem since they receive no state subsidy. They are dependent on gate receipts, and having species that the public want to see at close quarters. That does not mean shy birds which will hide away in dense vegetation, even if they are endangered.

Yet there is a resource of people who, with better organisation and co-ordination, would be willing to get involved: birdkeepers. But how easy is it to get involved in this area at present? There is actually an organisation set up that facilitates the sharing of stock and information, as well as keeping records of progress. It’s known as the European Studbook Foundation (ESF) and was founded in the Netherlands in 1997.

Its aims are clear-cut. It serves to conserve species in collections, with an emphasis on endangered species. It manages European studbooks and also helps to oversee genetically healthy breeding programmes. It co-operates with reintroduction programmes and helps to gather, compile and disseminate knowledge about the husbandry and reproductive behaviour of the species themselves, bringing breeders together.

Better still, the ESF programme is open to both zoos and private keepers, providing a vital link to benefit the species in question. Yet, sadly, for birdkeepers who want to be involved in conservation work of this type, there is a major drawback. The scheme only operates for those working with reptiles and amphibians!

There is a studbook scheme for birds, of course. It is administered by the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA). This organisation is open to institutions, not individuals, and has about 400 members. Now, given the number of threatened, if not endangered, birds (including waterfowl, pheasants and parrots) represented in private collections, this seems rather a missed opportunity. A broader approach is needed to bring more birds into these breeding programmes and simply to manage the genetic resource.

Equally, another aim needs to be to publicise these schemes and track down odd individual birds, which may be living as pets or on their own in aviaries, and yet could play a vital role in breeding programmes. Many Goffin’s cockatoos (Cacatua goffiniana) were sold as pets in the last two decades of the last century, and a number are still likely to be alive and young enough to breed today.

Inevitably, these projects do have administration costs, yet it would be good to think that a small fraction of the government’s overseas aid budget could be devoted to this.

DEFRA Secretary of State Michael Gove is acquiring a reputation as a radical reformer, keen to make a lasting impact in terms of creating a better environment. What could be better than to ensure the long-term survival of birds that otherwise may be lost for ever, by taking decisive action in this area now?

David Alderton is a former chairman of the National Council for Aviculture.

 

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