For the Birds Radio Program: Birds Affected by War

Original Air Date: Jan. 4, 2002 (estimated date)

War is hell on birds, too.

Audio missing


“War is hell” may be a cliche, but it’s also true. Considering the fear, suffering, and hardship of soldiers and civilians in Afghanistan, if feels wrong somehow to be concerned about what the war is doing to birds. But the war in Afghanistan and ongoing conflicts between India and Pakistan are exacting an unusually high avian toll. At the Gharana Wetland in India near the Pakistan border, where 25,000 waterfowl spent the winter during last year’s ceasefire, and 8-9,000 spend the winter during typical years, barely 2,500 birds appeared this year. When soldiers of the two nations fire at each other, the birds take wing, screaming and wheeling through the air at a time when they are supposed to be resting and fattening up before the breeding season. And on Rawal Lake in Pakistan, where several thousand ducks and other waterfowl normally spend the winter, not a single bird has yet arrived this winter. All over Pakistan, migratory bird populations are at all-time lows. The badly endangered Siberian Crane, which normally migrates in flocks numbering in the 50s, has only been observed flying in 2s and 3s this year.

A great many of India and Pakistan’s winter birds migrate there from Siberia and central Asia via Afghanistan, where they normally rest and fuel up at many sites. Wetlands of southeastern Kazakhstan are home to hundreds of species of migratory birds including two threatened species of pelicans. The bombing this year began right when migration normally would have been starting. Ornithologists aren’t exactly sure what happened. Some ornithologists speculate that spent bombs and debris may be poisoning wetlands and other sites these birds use. And the bombs and their associated fires take out birds as well as other living things. Also, the sounds and lights flashing from the bombing are most certainly frightening the birds, forcing them to search out new migratory routes. The route through Afghanistan has been developed over thousands of bird generations, and birds suddenly searching out better routes will end up in inappropriate habitats more than appropriate ones, and many will die.

Right now, ornithologists are powerless to do anything other than wait. People making winter censuses are still watching the skies in hopes that at least a few more birds will arrive. Come spring, they’ll take breeding bird surveys and hope the numbers aren’t too diminished. Only time will tell, but right now it looks pretty clear that at least some species already on the brink will disappear sooner rather than later.

Little by little, we humans are squandering priceless treasures in the natural world, and some day we’ll have to pay the price. Just as we ignored abundant warnings that terrorists were plotting against us, and that people all over the planet were getting angrier and angrier at the US, we’re also ignoring abundant warnings about global warming, and about diminishing number of many species of plants and animals. As our nation grows larger and larger, each individual voice gets more and more lost, and more and more people grow cynical and even despairing, thinking nothing can be done to turn the tide. And perhaps nothing can.

But we are supposedly the most intelligent of all animals, and we’re entering a new year, a time to look forward with hope.

We humans have always pinned our hopes on birds–the dove of peace, the eagle of strength and will, the bluebird of happiness. Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul. We humans have existed side by side with birds, depending on them for food, clothing, beauty and song since our very beginnings as a species. We do not know how to live in a world without them. When whole populations and even species are at risk, attention must be paid.