The New Zealand dotterel an endangered bird species
The New Zealand dotterel is one of many endangered bird species today.

Humans have not been good for the bird population. We know that Homo sapiens has caused the extinction of hundreds of species, as indicated by fossils and written records. However, most of this data was recorded after the 1500s, so our ability to estimate accurately has been limited.

Now, a team of scientists from Sweden and the UK, led by Rob Cooke of the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, has used statistical modelling to come up with a new estimate. By looking at historical figures and taking into account the likely number of undocumented extinctions, the team concluded that humans may have contributed to the extinction of around 1,400 bird species.

Because most known bird extinctions have occurred on islands, the researchers focused their estimates on these ecosystems, using New Zealand as a starting point. The country is the only place in the world where the pre-human bird fauna is thought to be completely known, with well-preserved remains of all bird species. So the team extrapolated from this data to obtain a global estimate.

If this is roughly accurate, humans have driven one in eight bird species to extinction. And with the disappearance of birds goes their ecological role. Birds can be prey for larger animals. They are also important pollinators and disperse seeds as they fly, helping plants to reproduce. Their extinction has a cascading effect of harm on ecosystems.

Today, many species of birds are still endangered around the world. According to the British Trust for Ornithology, the number of wild birds in Britain has fallen by 73 million since 1970. While there isn’t much that ordinary people can do, installing bird feeders in your garden is a good start, as is finding ways to deter cats from hunting your local feathered friends. To achieve more drastic change, policies that promote habitat restoration and sustainable agricultural practices could help reduce the risk of bird extinction. Moreover, as unpredictable weather patterns drastically affect wildlife, action to tackle climate change is urgently needed to protect and restore bird populations.

This article is from New Humanist's spring 2024 issue. Subscribe now.