Interview: Traveler of the Earth, migratory birds, and their conservation

2016 / 12 / 23 | Author: EcoNetworks

“Migratory birds typify the evolutionary ingenuity that allows animals to use the whole planet.”

Speaker: Professor Will Cresswell
School of Biology, University of St Andrews, UK
Interviewer: Shoko Sugasawa, Postdoctoral Research Fellow of Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (JSPS)


On our planet, hundreds of millions of birds are traveling across the continents in a spectacular scale year after year. For example, an aquatic bird, the Arctic tern travels back and forth between the South Pole and the North Pole every year. In Asia, many birds breed in Japan from spring to summer, travel to the Southeast Asia in autumn and spend a winter there. This is not merely a story in a nature program on TV. Even in a city of Japan such as Tokyo, we can encounter many migratory birds including swallows telling us the coming of spring and ducks showing up at the beginning of autumn.

These migratory birds, travelers of our planet, play an important role in the biodiversity of areas they visit. Because of their traveling behavior, the conservation activity involves comprehensive area including migratory routes in addition to the specific habitats. Partly due to the difficulties of tracking, however, some details of migratory birds’ ecology are still unknown and currently under study.

Companies that operate globally across regions just like the migratory birds may be able to contribute to the conservation of migratory birds. Here is an interview of Professor Will Cresswell who studies the ecology and conservation of migratory birds traveling between Europe and Africa.


What are migratory birds for local nature and human beings?

Migratory birds are an integral part of biodiversity. Anywhere you go on the planet a good percentage of the local bird life will consist of migratory species. In Europe for example, over one third of breeding species are long distance migrants that actually spend more of their lives in Africa.

And these species are wound into the fabric of our lives. The swallows tell us that summer is returning, and the geese and cranes tell us that winter is upon us. Migration is a fundamental part of the ecology of living on a planet with seasons. Migratory birds typify the evolutionary ingenuity that allows animals to use the whole planet.

(c) Will Cresswell

What aspects of biodiversity and migration do your research projects focus on?

My main interests are detailing the basic ecology of migrant birds on their non-breeding areas, particularly in Africa. We have a great historical tradition of studying birds in the northern hemisphere and there are thousands of studies detailing their ecology there. But in contrast there are literally only a handful of studies for each species on their non-breeding grounds or on their migration. For example, the population of the common whitethroat declined by a half over the course of a single winter. Something on their non-breeding ground in Africa or during their migration to their breeding ground in Britain killed half the population and to this date we do not understand how such events arise.

Most migratory bird species are declining globally. Each species is declining for specific reasons that need to be identified: loss of habitat, climate change, hunting, pesticides, etc. One of key aspects is focus on work in the non-breeding area and on the migration routes. This means a lot of international collaboration and in particular capacity building in sub-Saharan Africa where there are few ecologists. I have been involved in capacity building in Nigeria for the last 15 years, training Masters and PhD students in conservation biology and ornithology at the AP Leventis Ornithological research Institute (APLORI) ( When I started, there was only one local PhD ornithologist in Nigeria, and now we have over 75 graduates working in government, universities and conservation NGOs throughout Africa.

What contributions can companies and other organisations make towards conservation of migratory birds traveling across borders and continents?

One of the biggest issues in my opinion is awareness. For conservation actions to work, people have to care, and for people to care they have to at least know about the natural world and what is being lost. But we are becoming more disconnected from the natural world and where, perhaps 50 years ago, everyone would know some migrant birds, today it is hard for someone to notice the first geese of the winter calling overhead if they are plugged into their iPod.

And this is particularly so as more and more of the world’s population grows up in urban environments that are disconnected from the natural world. Companies and other organisations need to take some responsibility for this and help to support education and opportunities for people to spend leisure time in natural environments to reconnect. And of course companies need to develop and operate sustainably – minimizing their impact on the natural environment.

 (c) Will Cresswell

Do you know of any examples of companies and organisations carrying out such transboundary conservation projects?

To get Europeans to care about the environment in Africa and Africans to care about Europe, as part of this we need networks at all levels ― from international, intergovernmental agreements on climate change and protection of natural habitats, to groups of researchers coordinating their research.

An example of one such network is the recently established Migratory Landbirds Study Group (MLSG) that I helped set up. The group is a response to the United Nations’ Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS). The objective of the MLSG aid this action plan by serving as an independent study group to streamline research efforts that will provide information to conservation policy for migratory landbirds in Europe, Africa and Asia. The MLSG aims to promote and encourage co-operation between researchers by:

– Maintaining contact between both professional and amateurs interested in migrant landbirds;
– Helping to organise international co-operative studies;
– Providing a vehicle for exchange of information on migrant landbirds and their biology;
– Promoting scientific capacity building throughout the flyway.

What are the future directions for the conservation of migratory birds?

More of the same I think. We need more local ecologists throughout the flyways to piece together the jigsaw of migratory bird connectivity and what each species needs. Then we need to communicate this information to governmental bodies so that they can protect the important links in the migratory chain.

And most importantly we need to communicate our science and the fantastic migratory tales to everyone so that we continue to value ― and conserve ― those first swallows of spring. Personally, I will continue to follow migrants to Africa to study how they are adapting or not to a world with 9 billion people in it. And I will be looking to the future when the tags we have just begun to use to follow birds’ journeys across the planet will be small enough, powerful enough and cheap enough so that we can really find out why almost all migrant species are declining – and what we can most effectively do about it.

After the interview

The ecology of migratory birds still has a lot of mysteries. It also means that major discoveries are coming in the future. While continuing the latest research, it is necessary to raise awareness about migratory birds and promote comprehensive conservation activities through communication between scientists and general public.

When you see swallows or ducks next time, how about imagining their journey to your town?

Shoko Sugasawa