Thousands of shorebirds are dying along the coast of the North Sea, washing ashore in Canada, and entire populations are collapsing on small islands. I was supposed to be researching for a trip to the Wadden Sea the next day. Instead, I needed to talk about what humanity’s need for a cheap chicken dinner has to do with the bird flu.
I’m taking a friend to the mudflats tomorrow to record an episode on that really cool and ducking important ecosystem. In preparation, I looked into the shorebirds that rely on the Wadden Sea.
The same night, I had to read an article about the very same shorebirds dying in thousands. Honestly, I cried. Granted, my mood has been close to collapse for a few weeks with the world in the current state of things, but still.
Texel National Park in the Netherlands is on one of a few small islands North of Amsterdam, the Dutch Wadden Islands. A few weeks ago, this island was home to 4,500 breeding pairs of sandwich tern. It was the largest population in the Wadden Sea. Now, there are about 50 pairs left. 50 of 4,500! The other 4,450 breeding pairs are dead.
The sandwich tern (Thalasseus sandvicensis) is an endangered species of terns. And now, their very nature is making them especially vulnerable to the avian flu. Like many shorebirds, they breed in giant colonies, so once the virus reaches them, they stand little chance. Parent birds can’t muster the energy to feed their young, crawl around in a last attempt to get anywhere, while their young watch them die. Chicks gasp for air while crying for food and a parent that will never feed them. If the virus doesn’t get them, starvation will.
In an attempt to slow down the spread, marine biologists and volunteers are collecting the dead birds and discarding them in trash bags. Have I painted the picture?
The same dire scene is playing out in France, where a thousand corpses were found at a colony at Oye-Plage, east of Calais. Three quarters of the colony there are dead.
In Boulogne-sur-Mer, another species of endangered birds, the European Herring Gull (Larus argentatus) is experiencing the same fate. The Common Tern, which I’ll talk about a lot in the Wadden Sea episode, is also starting to die.
Terns are migratory birds, so it’s not just their giant breeding colonies that make them vulnerable. Before they start getting symptoms, the birds keep flying. Terns are among the species with the longest migrations, making it possible for the virus to spread… and spread… and spread.
Another small Wadden Sea island, the Minsener Oog only a little away from where I live, another place where the sandwich tern breeds in a large colony, is collapsing. People in plastic suits, masks, and surgical gloves have already removed more than a thousand parent birds—and they don’t even dare go into the center of the colony out of fear of spreading the virus further by scaring off birds that would then fly away and spread the virus.
And finally, shorebirds live long lives, breed late in life, and only have a few chicks, so the die-off of thousands of breeding birds might well mean the collapse of the population with little chance of recovery.
Frustratingly, the article I read, mentioned that the Northern Gannet in the area hadn’t been hit yet. Well, the article was a few weeks old when I found it, and that has changed. A devastating article by Simone Baumeister, a German nature photographer, had me in tears. The Northern gannet population is collapsing, with two-thirds of the 1,500 breeding pairs already dead, along with many of the chicks.
What I found most devastating was her experience at the site, the comments of people there to watch the cute chicks. From comments about herd immunity and how this will solve itself to “Well, there’s nothing we can do about it anyway” shrugs, the comments were almost as disheartening as the video, photos, and her words.
While it is true that there is little we can do about this current round of the bird flu, there is a lot we can do to prevent this from happening over and over again.
The bird flu has been around for a while. The virus itself is nothing new. The first outbreak was in 1996 in China and Hong Kong, first identified in commercial geese in Southern China. In 2003, it first spread to Africa, the Middle East, and Europe. Over the next years, subtypes developed and between 2018 and 2020, the virus become a global issue—now with the H5N8 variant.
This year and last year, a version with a gene adapted to wild birds has become predominant, so where poultry was the main sufferer before, massive wild bird outbreaks have been recorded all over the world from thousands of cranes in Israel’s Agamon Hula Park last year to thousands of migrant seabirds washing up on Canada shores and even the Isle of Man this year.
And, as per usual, all of this is our fault. The bird flu, like other viruses, mutates and adapts, but that evolutionary arms race between virus and host is usually an arms race that keeps populations in check instead of collapsing them. But with humans squeezing massive livestock into small areas and speeding up generation times to supply a never-ending supply of cheap chicken dinners, the virus has the perfect environment to grow.
So, while we can’t help the birds dying left right and center, we can help prevent future outbreaks. And there are two main things we can do: give back living and breeding grounds to the colonies and change how we think about livestock. Well, and then there are people suggesting we keep the populations from breeding next year by taking away their eggs to get them back onto the water, where the virus has a harder time spreading.
Somehow that last solution doesn’t sound like a solution to me at all. Many populations of shorebirds are already in rapid decline, so taking away an entire year of chicks doesn’t sound like a good solution to me. Luckily, so far, it’s seen as an emergency plan that we hopefully will never get to see put in action.
For a while now, conservationists have been pleading for protecting more of this planet and keeping it away from humans to give nature a place to exist. The 30×30 campaign is fighting to protect 30% of our oceans by 2030. Meanwhile, others are fighting for more national parks and reserves on land. But there is little of this in the news and public perception. I think, a big part of the problem is that politics and corporations are doing a ducking good job at framing all environmental issues as issues where we humans have to give things up. The truth is, protecting the planet would not only benefit us all, but it will be the only way to save humanity in the future. While 30% by 2030 is too little too late in my opinion, the idea is one of the few I see as promising.
And speaking of exploiting nature: Researchers say, the solution is to prevent outbreaks in poultry, so commercial livestock. As long as we expect cheap chicken dinners, chicken will need to be raised in masses in tiny enclosures where conditions are ideal for viruses to spread, mutate, and develop into more and more dangerous variants. This needs to change, and now.
Watching the footage Simone sent me was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. Thousands of shorebirds dying or dead is definitely not something I want to see. But I had to watch it to be able to share what’s happening, and so I did.
Most of humanity, unfortunately, lives in a comfortable bubble of denial. At this point, it often feels like there are two kinds of people: those in denial about the climate crisis and those who think it’s either too late to make a change or that their views won’t matter. Politicians, lobbies, greedy corporations, and capitalism have done a wonderful job at keeping the general population in check when it comes to demanding change here.
That’s bullcrab. Sure, it’s too late to undo all the damage we have done, but it’s not too late to do damage control and to reduce just how crabby this whole thing is going to get. And, to the big surprise of most people, there is a lot that could be done right now. And no, I’m not talking about you giving up chicken, let alone all animal products. Sure, that would be great, but I’m not trying to convert you to veganism here. I’m also not going to ask you not to fly or whatever.
The change we need right now is beyond any individual here. The change we need is bigger, systemic change. But, you, yes, you individually, will be needed to demand that change. We need to scream for change, demand it right now. Because governments can do a lot more than you think, even right now. Instead, companies keep lulling us with vague promises of changes they’ll make by 2025, 2030, or even later while increasing their short-term emissions, billionaires are promising technological solutions like geoengineering that would be devastating to all of us. There is a really good NYT Opinion piece about this on YouTube. I can also recommend reading On Fire by Naomi Klein, who not only lays out how everything went wrong, but also details a plan that could be put into place right now to change all of this crab.
But I know most of you won’t have the time or attentions pan for either of these things, so let me just tell you this: We can change this. We just need to demand change. Going vegan or taking the train instead of your car are wonderful changes. You should definitely consider those, but it’s not what will save humanity from itself: Instead, I ask you to educate yourself and to stop thinking the way corporations and politicians want you to think. You are smarter than that.
Demand change and climate change won’t just save humanity, but also benefit all of us. It’s not a matter of giving up a lot of crab for the normal human. It’s a matter of giving up unbelievable profit for the richest of the rich. Your taxes are likely still paying for fossil fuel extraction. Germany, the US, and a lot of other countries are still sending massive subsidies to the fossil fuel industry. Europe just declared “natural gas” a green form of energy. All that is happening. And we can change it.
So, today, I won’t ask you to become a Patreon to support what I do. No, instead, I’m gonna ask you to speak up, to scream for change. I don’t care if you join a protest or write a tweet to your representative, but it’s time to do something about this—not just for the thousands of birds dying out there, but for humans, too.