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African birds take steps to survive

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE Birds are responding to climate change and land degradation threats by using nature reserves as stepping stones to cross Africa and find new habitats that provide refuge against extinction LONDON, June 27 − Birds of the dry savannah in Tanzania are moving west to find habitats that meet their survival needs − and they are taking advantage of man-made buffer zones to make the journey Although the nature reserves were set up with mammals in mind, as a means of helping them to cope with the pressures of human development, they have proved a lifeline for species such as hornbills and francolins that decide to move to survive climate change and the degrading of their former habitat. This is the first scientific evidence that birds in Africa are moving in response to climate and environmental changes. Researchers from York University, UK, reporting in the Ecology Letters journal, used decades of data from the Tanzania Bird Atlas project and found that the 139 species studied had shifted their range up to 300 kilometres over recent decades. The findings change the debate over whether national parks and game reserves are of use in the face of climate change. It now appears that they are a vital link in allowing wild bird species to find new homes on their own.

Protected network

Lead author Dr Colin Beale, of York University’s Department of Biology, said: “Although the protected area network was set up for mammals, our research shows it is assisting dry bush species of birds to respond to land degradation, caused by over-grazing, conversion to crops and the loss of trees, as well as climate change. “We discovered that rather than declining in value as birds move in response to climate changes, protected areas in Tanzania are becoming increasingly valuable as land degradation exerts pressures elsewhere. “Our research suggests that protected areas are buffering the bird community against extinction due to land degradation and offer stepping stones for species that are altering their distribution in response to climate change.” The York University study, which also involved researchers from Queens University Belfast and the strategic research organisation Biomathematics and Statistics Scotland, compared data for Tanzanian savannah bird species, such as hornbills, francolins, the rufous-tailed weaver, Fischer’s sparrow-lark and the Pangani longclaw. Data from 1960 to 1989 was compared to data post-2000.

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Citizen scientists

The study was based on actual observation of the birds, rather than computer modelling, with hand-held GPS units linking to satellites to get absolute accuracy. Neil Baker, from Tanzania Bird Atlas, said: “This study once again emphasises the value of the long-term collection of reliable, meaningful data, and the vital role of the citizen scientist. Indeed, with so few professionals in the Afrotropics, this is the only way to collect this information. Co-author Dr Jack Lennon, from the School of Biological Sciences, Queens University Belfast, said: “Our main discovery is that conservation investment in protected areas is paying off, even for species that are not the main reason for having them. As environmental change continues, it is likely that the importance of protected areas as a refuge against extinction elsewhere will increase.” The study was funded by a Marie Curie Fellowship from the EU held by Dr Beale, with additional funding from the Rural and Environmental Research and Analysis Directorate of the Scottish Government. − Climate News Network