Who’s taking care of birds?

A FISH eagle in Siavonga.

EVERY year, in the third week of May, environmentalists, bird watchers, and others with interest in birdlife gather in different parts of the world to highlight the importance of bird conservation and share vital knowledge on why this is important for future generations.The theme for this year’s World Migratory Bird Day is “Unifying our Voices for Bird Conservation”.
In his voice, nine-year-old Jake says during World Migratory Bird Day in Chisamba that his favourite bird is the fish eagle.
“I used to see it swooping down to get fish near the lodge in Siavonga. But I don’t see it so often anymore,” he says.
“My second favourite bird I have decided to call a chuchu,” he said. “Chuchu, really! Why?” I ask. “Because that’s the kind of noise it makes when it wants to eat my food, especially if I am eating chips. When I have enough food, I give it, but when I have a little, I just say sorry birdie,” he replies.
I am inclined to believe the mysterious chuchu bird could well be the white chested tinkerbird which is listed as having been sighted only once in Zambia, but that would take qualified bird experts to verify.
Jake is one of the over 50 young people gathered in Chisamba on a special tour with Birdwatch Zambia to commemorate the International Bird Migration Day.
“This year, we decided to concentrate on imparting knowledge in the young people on the migration habits of birds and the importance of protecting them when they are in their natural habitat,” says Birdwatch Zambia education and communication officer Omali Phiri.
The tour group is comprised of pupils from Chisamba Basic School, Martin House School and Nkongolo Primary School. These schools are based in Chisamba area which has been declared an Important Bird and Biodiversity Area (IBA).
Others on the tour include members from the Wildlife and Environmental Conservation Society in Zambia and other environmentalists interested in bird watching.
While the pupils have great fun calling out the number of birds spotted, the experts use the opportunity to make significant observations and note down crucial information.
“We have a process of carrying out constant research to note any changes in the behaviour of birds and also to note any changes in concentration of species,” Mr Phiri says.
With funding from BirdLife International, BirdWatch Zambia (BWZ) has been conducting population surveys covering 73,000 hectares and 475kms of transects within and around Chisamba, an IBA as the experts say.
Before the tour commences at Sable Farm, which is one of the IBA certified farms in Chisamba, the pupils gather around for a talk on the importance of bird conservation.
The farm has a number of natural water reservoirs where birds gather during the course of the day. Sharing binoculars, the pupils excitedly point out birds as they spot them on the edge of the water, up in branches of dry trees on the forest edges or some water birds cosily swimming in the water. Birds spotted include the pied kingfisher, grey heron, knob-billed ducks and the hamerkop.
Some of the birds fly off when the sound of the excited pupils gets too loud. The Zambian barbet, one of the birds endemic to the area can easily be spotted on the crest of dry tree branches.
“Bird viewing is actually best done alone, or in small groups, so the noise is kept to the minimum,” explains Mr Phiri.
He says that as the weather begins to get cool in the southern hemisphere, the birds migrate to warmer climate where they go to breed.
“Each year, billions of birds funnel from Europe and Asia into southern Africa and back again. Birds visiting southern Africa in the austral summer can number over 180 species and all typically follow the same migration routes,” he says.
As Martin Benadie explains in the Wonder of Bird Migration, seasonal migration occurs when individuals move to and from geographically separated home rages to exploit changes in environmental conditions and seasons.
“What is just staggering is that almost half of the 10,000 recorded bird species in the world migrate! It is estimated that 5 billion birds of at least 200 species migrate to sub-Saharan Africa,” Mr Benadie writes.
Mr Phiri reminds the pupils that they are the next custodians of all the species of birds as a next generation of adults and urges them to be mindful of the need to conserve birdlife.
“What we are hoping for is that this moment in nature can spark a lifelong passion to conserve the environment to allow for birds to have their natural habitat and at the same time to protect the different species,” he says.
Some of the older kids are well aware of the dangers facing birds.
“We used to hunt for birds with friends just for fun. Sometimes, I see adults hunt seriously for the birds, but they do not tell us what they use them for,” says Joshua Mwale, a Grade 9 pupil.
His teacher, a Mr Chola explains that one threat facing bird species involves the hunt for cultural beliefs.
“For example, people have been known to hunt vultures for use in cultural belief practices,” he says.
While birds within Sable Farm are generally protected because it is a private property, large breeding colonies of other waterbirds are under threat in other parts of the country, as some of the literature availed indicates.
“Sometimes, nests of birds are raided by people who feed on the eggs, and yet this is such a huge cost to the multiplication of the species. Some of the birds are raided for food, with bird traps being common in the Bangweulu,” it reads.
The other bird species under threat is the called shoebill, endemic to the Bangweulu plains where it is often hunted down for illegal export.
Mr Phiri also says some people make a game of shooting birdlife. For example, the spur winged geese are considered worth poaching with short guns.
“This is why it is important for us to focus the young people, so that as they grow, they can be inspired to become tomorrow’s conservationists who will carry our love for birds into the next generation,” Mr Phiri says to the young conservationists as they trek back from the expedition.
In the quiet environment that follows, I grab binoculars and settle for a lone birdwatch excursion, in search of Jake’s chuchu bird.

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