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Bird Extinctions Occurring Faster Than Previously Believed

12 Percent of All Bird Species Could Be Extinct By End of 21st Century

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Bird species all over the world are becoming extinct far more rapidly than scientists previously believed, and as many as 12 percent of all existing bird species—about 1,250—could disappear by the end of this century, according to a study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on July 4, 2006.

The study, conducted by researchers from Stanford and Duke universities and the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis, is the most thorough and comprehensive analysis of global bird species ever conducted.

More Bird Extinctions Every Year
Prior to the findings of the new study, scientists had documented the extinction of about 130 bird species since the year 1500, but the authors of the study say it is more likely that 500 of the 10,000 known bird species become extinct during that period—about one extinction per year over the past 500 years.

The new figures include extinct bird species identified only from fossil records and others never officially declared extinct.

Humans Responsible for Majority of Bird Extinctions
The study blames humans for the rapid extinction of the world’s birds.

According to the study, the newly reported rate of extinction among bird species is 100 times higher than what scientists considered natural before human beings began hunting birds for food and sport, destroying bird habitat by clearing land for agriculture and other uses, and introducing disease and non-native species of birds, rats and snakes that either prey on native bird species or compete aggressively with them for food and habitat.

"The extinctions all have to do with people in one way or another,'' said Peter Raven, president of the Missouri Botanical Garden, according to an article in the San Francisco Chronicle. Raven, who has been studying plant and animal extinctions for 40 years, and his co-authors said habitat destruction from human activity and global warming is expected to be the leading cause of bird species extinction throughout the 21st century.

Conservation Can Prevent Extinctions
According to the study, 20 wild bird species have gone extinct since 1975, but 25 others have been saved from extinction through conservation efforts. As a result, the researchers concluded conservation efforts can be very effective for saving threatened and endangered species from extinction.

The loss of bird species could have far-reaching ramifications for the economy and the environment, according to scientists.

“Birds are an important component of our ecosystem,” said Jack Dumbacher, curator of birds and mammals at the California Academy of Sciences, in an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle. “They keep mice and rats in control and eat insects that attack crops. They are food for other organisms and create habitat for other organisms. They disperse seeds and pollen. There are cases on islands when birds go extinct that the trees also go extinct.”

Media coverage:
Where are all the birds? (San Francisco Chronicle)
Bird extinction pace worries scientists (Kansas City Star and St. Louis Post-Dispatch)
Bird extinction rates far worse than realized (New Scientist)
Experts: Bird extinction rate underestimated (MSNBC)

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