CBCnews

Decline of birds a flying shame

bobmcdonald-190.jpgBy Bob McDonald, Quirks & Quarks

News this week that one in eight species of birds is in serious decline worldwide might mean the end of the line for some of the most successful animals that ever lived on the planet.

Scientists refer to birds as "living dinosaurs" because they are the descendents of species known as ornithischian dinosaurs, or, literally, bird-like dinosaurs. These include archaeopteryx, raptors and even the famous Tyrannosaurus rex. That means that as a group, these animals have been on Earth for more than 200 million years.

During that time, the Earth has been though a lot of changes. The continents have shifted from one large land mass in one global ocean to the multiple continents we see today, altering the climate as they did so. Ice ages have come and gone, and of course, the biggest event was an asteroid strike in the Yucatan 65 million years ago that wiped out most other species of dinosaur.

But despite all those global changes over such unimaginably long time periods, the birds have shown remarkable survival abilities, evolving and adapting to different environments from Pole to Pole. Now, they are facing the most serious threat of all - one that could finally drive them off the planet. Humans.

Our tendency to cut down forests to make farms, the sprawl of our cities and more recently, a warming climate from our fossil fuel industries, have eliminated much of the birds' habitats and food sources. They fly into our tall buildings, get covered in oil along shorelines, are shot at by hunters and eaten by domestic cats. Is this the way these long-time survivors will finally become extinct?

Also related to the survival of birds was the release of new satellite images of the Earth's vegetation, called the Herbal Earth. These images from the Sunomi NNP satellite dramatically show how little green there is around the globe. The idea is to monitor the green spaces over time to see how they are changing, as the climate changes.

That green is not only the habitat of birds but of all other life that makes up the biodiversity of the planet. Also in the images are huge brown areas of desert. Many of these areas are growing as the climate warms, and their encroachment on the green spaces is augmented by the growth of cities.

In other words, there isn't a lot of green space to go around and it's getting smaller.

There have been at least five major extinctions of life on Earth, some of them almost sterilizing the planet. But every time, life comes back in a new form. The birds have been through one of those extinctions already. 

Considering how resilient they are, they could survive this current extinction event, too - if we just give them a chance by making sure the green spaces on the planet remain green. An added bonus to that effort is that we could be ensuring the survival of the human species as well.