Climate change: Heed the birds

By Malaka Rodrigo

With the Copenhagen summit beginning this week, the world will focus on climate change. Experts predict that 1/3 of the world’s bird species are vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Birds in Sri Lanka too could be affected, but we lack sufficient data to analyse the adverse effects triggered by climate change and other environmental issues.

“Birds are sensitive to changes in their environment. Hence they can be among the first group of animals warning us about a changing climate,” says ornithologist Prof. Sarath Kotagama. Birds have long been used as indicators of the state of the world’s ecosystems, providing insights into habitat loss, deterioration and pollution. Climate change has been the latest addition to that list.

Increased temperature, altered rainfall patterns, more extreme weather events which are the effects of climate change will have a direct impact on birds. Climate change will also affect populations of birds indirectly by altering their habitats via sea level rise, changes in fire regimes, and changes in vegetation or land use etc. For example, the sea level rising by a fraction of a millimetre will bring in salt water to important bird habitats like the Bundala lagoon in Sri Lanka. This will change the lagoon’s salinity and cause an imbalance in the whole ecosystem putting thousands of birds at risk. Bundala has already lost its star attraction, the Lesser Flamingo due to a change in water salinity.

“In Sri Lanka, the data deficiency is one of the major drawbacks in identifying changes to bird populations, says Prof. Kotagama . People can play a role in collecting data, he says stressing that Sri Lanka needs a baseline set of data to analyse the trends of bird population changes.

The Field Ornithology Group of Sri Lanka (FOGSL) which is also the BirdLife International’s local affiliate declared December as the Bird Counting Month and Prof.Kotagama invites the public to participate in bird counting and be citizen scientists.

Start counting

The Bird counting month is an opportunity to pay attention to the birds around you, count them and record them. Here’s how it’s done.

  • Observe birds in as many places as you can. This need not necessarily be a wilderness - your home garden, school premises, workplace too are good starting points.
  • Keep a note of the birds you see. The list should include the date, time, location, weather at the time, the habitat that the bird observation is carried out, and the name and contact details of the observer.
  • You can also include the number of each species seen at the location, so that this number can be used roughly to compare the population next year.
  • If you have participated in last year’s bird month, compare the results with this year. Valuable data can be highlighted through this exercise.
  • Feed the data directly to the Sri Lankan section of World Bird Database email to or post your records to FOGSL, Department of Zoology, University of Colombo, Colombo 3. Contact FOGSL Secretariat on 5342609 or 0773589392 for any clarifications.
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