Birds in our Lives: Global Legal Protection and Conservation Efforts

March 5, 2021Lu Shegay


Birds are warm-blooded vertebrates that inhabit each region of the world, playing an important role in the ecosystem. There are approximately 10 000 living species across the globe, they are considered feathered theropod dinosaurs and constitute the only living dinosaurs. Many species of birds are considered economically important due to their use in human consumption, manufacture, sources of eggs, meat, feathers, as well as pets. Around 120-130 species became extinct due to human activities that started back in the 17th century. Currently, about 1200 species of birds are threatened with extinction.


Birds are impacted by natural factors and lots of human activities that lead to habitat loss, hunting, climate change, pollution, etc.

All of the birds’ habitats are significant for them because it constitutes the main factor of their survival. Thus, habitat shifting/alteration, loss, or degradation can impact birds and their population-level. Surprisingly, habitat loss remains the greatest and major threat to birds. Humans destroy and damage birds’ habitat by creating farms, building cities and suburbs, and other industrialized facilities. One of the major sources is the agricultural business. For instance, the United States converted 4.8 million acres for agricultural purposes for 11 years, in 2007-2018.

Humans have been hunting birds for a long period of time, which led to the extinction of some species. Apart from that, pollution also impacted the population of some birds. Plastic use has become very convenient for humans, however, the material is not degradable. Plastic waste has been flown to the oceans and by the wind that polluted a lot of places that used to be good for birds habitats. Birds, most of the time, mistakenly consume plastic items, which may have a lethal outcome. Recent oil spill cases that have been occurring often lately threaten birds, in particular, seabirds, and cause birds to die of hypothermia.

High buildings, communications towers, and other related structures have become another threat to birds. It is estimated that approximately 3.5 to 975 million birds a year die because of those structures just in North America. The main cause of their death is glass windows, which kill about 100-900 million birds a year. This is followed by hunting that kills more than 100 million birds, house cats (100 million), cars and other vehicles killing about 50-100 million birds, electric power lines affecting 174 million, and pesticides (67 million).


According to the IUCN report in 2008, 11% of migratory land birds and waterbirds were identified as threatened or near-threatened on the IUCN Red List, and the total number of birds has been critically threatened since 1988. The last data showed that more than 1300 species of birds are threatened with extinction and a lot of critically endangered species are on the edge of extinction due to human activities posing threats.

In 2008, the BirdLife Preventing Extinctions Programme was launched in response to the decrease of the birds’ population. During the first five years, the program took action for 40% of threatened species. Moreover, the main focus of the BirdLife Partnership was done on threatened species and critically endangered species. According to BirdLife, there are 7677 Least Concern, 880 Near Threatened, 1313 Threatened, 60 Data Deficient, 727 Vulnerable, 389 Endangered, and 197 Critically Endangered species of birds worldwide.

Other conservation methods include captive breeding, otherwise known as ex-situ conservation, which works on reintroducing species in captivity, i.e, zoos, breeding facilities with consequent releasing into the wild. Captive breeding techniques have been used for a long period of time to save species from extinction. For instance, the Mauritius kestrel’s population was only 4 individuals in 1974, but by 2006, the population grew to 800. Also, the California condors were decided to be taken into a captive breeding program after 1982, when their global population was just 23 individuals. Since 1992, the population has grown to 410 birds, and, in 2008, there were more California condors in the wild than in captivity for the first time since the beginning of the program.

Legal protection

International Convention for the Protection of Birds

The International Convention for the Protection of Birds is an international instrument that was enacted in 1950 with the purpose to “protect birds in the wild state, considering that in the interests of science, the protection of nature and the economy of each nation, all birds should as a matter of principle be protected.” The treaty states that all birds shall be protected during the breeding season, migratory species during the flight to their breeding ground, and endangered species of birds throughout the year. (Article 2) The treaty also prohibits taking eggs, shells, and young birds. (Article 4) It imposes limitations on hunting methods, for instance, snares, nets, poisoned bait, and others, which shall be either prohibited or restricted. (Article 5) Furthermore, Article 10 and 11 provide that Parties shall “take measures to prevent the destruction of birds by water pollution, electric cables, insecticides and poisons, and to educate children and the public in the need for protection of birds” and “establish reserves for breeding birds.”

Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals

The Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS) is another international treaty that aims to conserve migratory species within their migratory ranges. One of its fundamental principles is to acknowledge the importance of migratory species and the necessity to take action to improve the conservation status, which would be favorable for the species of wild animals and their habitat. CMS has Appendices with different levels of protection. Appendix I lists migratory species threatened with extinction where State Parties’ are bound by the duty to ensure strict protection of species. State Parties shall also prevent the taking of animals belonging to such species, except for the taking for scientific purposes, for accommodating the needs of traditional subsistence users of such species, for enhancing the propagation or survival of the affected species, and extraordinary circumstances. Appendix II includes migratory species that have unfavorable conservation status and that would significantly benefit from international cooperation, and these species serve as the basis for the establishment of regional or global instruments under the treaty. Therefore, Parties shall strive to conclude agreements that would be beneficial and would “give priority to the species in unfavorable conservation status.”

CMS is not focused on birds and only focuses on migratory species of wild animals.

"Bird in Sausalito" by Joi is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Convention on Wetlands of International Importance

Another global legally binding instrument is aimed at the conservation of migratory birds is the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance, otherwise known as the Ramsar Convention. In 2018, more than 810 000 square miles were covered as internationally important sites. Countries with the most sites were the United Kingdom (175) and Mexico (142). The country that had the greatest area of listed wetlands was Bolivia (57 000 square miles).

The U.S-Japan Convention

The Convention between the Government of the United States of America and the Government of Japan for the Protection of Migratory Birds and Birds in Danger of Extinction and Their Environment prohibits taking of the migratory birds and their eggs, as well as any sale, purchase, or exchange of the birds or their eggs, taking illegally, alive or dead, and any sale, purchase, or exchange of the products thereof or their parts. However, the treaty provides exceptions, such as scientific, educational, propagative, or other specific purposes; for the purpose of protecting persons and property; with respect to private game farms, etc.

The treaty also states that both Contracting Parties “agree that special protection is desirable for the preservation of species or subspecies of birds which are in danger of extinction.” Moreover, each Party shall take strive to take appropriate steps to “preserve and enhance the environment of birds protected under Articles III and IV.” Those include seeking means to prevent damage to such birds and their environment; endeavor to take measures to control the importation of live animals and plants which it determines to be hazardous to the preservation of such birds; and endeavor to take measures to control the introduction of live animals and plants which could disturb the ecological balance of unique island environments.

"Birds" by Phil Fiddyment is licensed under CC BY 2.0


Birds are one of the most beautiful creatures on Earth. Approximately 40% of 11,000 different species of birds decline in the population. For the past 60 years, the overall population of seabirds has declined by 70%. All species of birds are important for the entire ecosystem, thus they need global protection.

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