Johannesburg, March 13 (Reuters): The threat of war in Iraq has ornithologists in a flap as millions of birds make their way across the country on their annual spring migration to northern breeding grounds.
“At this time of year, March-April, you have the greatest number of birds in Iraq,” said Phil Hockey, a migration specialist with the Percy FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology in Cape Town.
“From a biodiversity point of view this is the worst possible time of the year to have a war there,” Hockey said.
US President George W. Bush has vowed to go to war to disarm Iraq with or without UN backing and many analysts expect an invasion within a few weeks.
Iraq lies on a key migration route for many feathered species that winter in Africa and breed in Europe and western Russia in the summer. “Iraq’s two major rivers (Tigris and Euphrates) are an important part of the route for many long distance migrants, including pelicans and storks, and for shore birds that breed along the Caspian Sea and in central Asia,” Hockey said.
“A lot of the birds will be moving now, with the main movement time from the middle of March to the end of April.”
White storks that have wintered in South Africa and are en route to nesting grounds in places like Estonia could give up their migration if it took them over battle zones.
“Long-distance migrants can’t make it from their non-breeding grounds to their breeding grounds in a single flight,” said Hockey.
“They have to stop along the way and refuel and for a lot of species these refuelling sites are traditional. If they are prevented from doing so because of a disturbance they could abort their migration or even starve to death,” he said.
Even if the birds push ahead with their migration, war-related disruptions could see them arriving too late in their northern nesting sites to complete their breeding cycle. This is especially critical for birds that nest far in the north where the breeding season is quite brief.
Iraq’s habitat and location make it a bird-watcher’s paradise.