Bird Species Decimated: Humans Responsible for 1,400 Extinctions, Double Previous Estimates

Bird Skull

A groundbreaking study reveals that human activities have led to the extinction of around 1,400 bird species, highlighting the urgent need for conservation efforts to protect remaining avian diversity and prevent further losses.

Scientists report that the loss of species is twice the current estimate, with 1 in 9 species having been lost.

A new study reveals that human activities have led to the extinction of approximately 1,400 bird species, a figure that is double the earlier estimates. This has significant consequences for the current biodiversity crisis.

Islands that were once pristine havens, such as Hawaii, Tonga, and the Azores, experienced drastic changes following human settlement. These changes included widespread deforestation, excessive hunting, and the introduction of non-native species, resulting in the loss of numerous bird species.

While the demise of many birds since the 1500s has been recorded, our knowledge of the fate of species before this relies on fossils, and these records are limited because birds’ lightweight bones disintegrate over time. This conceals the true extent of global extinctions.

Researchers now believe 1,430 bird species – almost 12 percent – have died out over modern human history, since the Late Pleistocene around 130,000 years ago, with the vast majority of them becoming extinct directly or indirectly due to human activity.

The study, led by the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (UKCEH) and published in Nature Communications, used statistical modeling to estimate the undiscovered bird extinctions.

Methodology and Findings

Lead author Dr. Rob Cooke, an ecological modeler at UKCEH, says: “Our study demonstrates there has been a far higher human impact on avian diversity than previously recognized. Humans have rapidly devastated bird populations via habitat loss, overexploitation, and the introduction of rats, pigs, and dogs that raided nests of birds and competed with them for food. We show that many species became extinct before written records and left no trace, lost from history.”

Dr Søren Faurby of the University of Gothenburg, a co-author of the study, adds: “These historic extinctions have major implications for the current biodiversity crisis.

AI Image of Extinct Birds

Above is An AI-generated image of what the unknown extinct birds might have looked like. Credit: UKCEH

“The world may not only have lost many fascinating birds but also their varied ecological roles, which are likely to have included key functions such as seed dispersal and pollination. This will have had cascading harmful effects on ecosystems so, in addition to bird extinctions, we will have lost a lot of plants and animals that depended on these species for survival.”

Observations and fossils show 640 bird species have been driven extinct since the Late Pleistocene period – 90 percent of these on islands inhabited by people. These range from the iconic Dodo of Mauritius to the Great Auk of the North Atlantic to the lesser-known Saint Helena Giant Hoopoe. But the researchers estimated there have been further 790 unknown extinctions, meaning a total of 1,430 lost species – leaving just under 11,000 today.

Human-Driven Extinction Events

The scientists say their study has uncovered the largest human-driven vertebrate extinction event in history, during the 14th century, estimating that 570 bird species were lost after people first arrived in the Eastern Pacific, including Hawaii and the Cook Islands – nearly 100 times the natural extinction rate.

They believe there was also a major extinction event in the ninth century BC, primarily driven by the arrival of people to the Western Pacific, including Fiji and the Mariana Islands, as well as the Canary Islands, and highlight the ongoing extinction event, which started in the mid-18th century. Since then, in addition to an increase in deforestation and the spread of invasive species, birds have faced the additional human-driven threats of climate change, intensive agriculture, and pollution.

Previous research by the authors suggests we are at risk of losing up to 700 additional bird species in the next few hundred years, which would be an unprecedented human-driven decimation of species. But Dr Cooke points out: “Whether or not further bird species will go extinct is up to us. Recent conservation has saved some species and we must now increase efforts to protect birds, with habitat restoration led by local communities.”

The study team based their modeled estimates on known extinctions and the extent of relevant research effort in regions compared to New Zealand. The country is the only place in the world where the pre-human bird fauna is believed to be completely known, with well-preserved remains of all birds there. The fewer studies in a region, the more incomplete the fossil record is expected to be, and the greater the number of estimated undiscovered extinctions.

Reference: “Undiscovered bird extinctions obscure the true magnitude of human-driven extinction waves” by Rob Cooke, Ferran Sayol, Tobias Andermann, Tim M. Blackburn, Manuel J. Steinbauer, Alexandre Antonelli and Søren Faurby, 19 December 2023, Nature Communications.
DOI: 10.1038/s41467-023-43445-2

2 Comments on "Bird Species Decimated: Humans Responsible for 1,400 Extinctions, Double Previous Estimates"

  1. Perhaps you’d prefer the reverse: ‘Human species decimated: birds responsible for…’

  2. It’s not just rats, dogs and pigs, but cats that have had an enormous effect on the extinction of birds.
    Funny that they left out cats, considering they’re currently one of the largest drivers of bird deaths in regions they’re not native to.

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