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The world's migratory birds need your help to safely fly back to nest

Jackline Walumbe, with Eurasian Roller migratory bird from Europe she found tired and hungry at Ol Maisor Ranch in Laikipia. [Nanjinia Wamuswa, Standard]

As migratory birds hit flyways, their hope is to arrive well at their destination, eat enough and return home safely to nest and raise chicks.

That, perhaps, was the prayer of a Eurasian Roller bird when it left Europe during winter and headed to the tropics where it could get plenty of insects and other foodstuffs.  

No one knows where it was headed but in Kenya, it landed at Ol Maisor Ranch in Laikipia County. Here, the bird, with eyes closed under a tree, looked exhausted, hungry and in need of emergency aid.

As the Roller, whose colour is mainly blue with an orange-brown back, stared at death, one Jackline Walumbe, who particularly got concerned with its wearily status, tried to scare it and see if it could fly away but the bird did not move. She picked it up with ease.

“I have grown up seeing birds and under normal circumstances, you cannot pick up any bird so easily. There’s a problem,” she said. “We must assist her.”

Luckily, a call to Dr Titus Imboma, an ornithologist with the National Museums of Kenya (NMK), went through and after looking at the picture of the bird, he quickly identified it as European Roller.

“It could just be exhaustion, possibly due to a long journey, and also hungry,” said Dr Imboma. He advised that the bird be given a sugar solution.

Walumbe, assisted by Susan Njoki, followed the instructions as given. Eventually, the bird gained strength flew to a nearby tree, then disappeared.

Such a kind gesture could save many birds.

John Musina, an ornithologist at NMK, says without enough food on the way, hungry and tired migratory birds sometimes cannot fly. He advises Kenyans to report to the National Museums of Kenya or Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) if they come across birds that cannot fly.   

“Meanwhile, feeding the bird sugar water might provide some necessary energy before the experts arrive to attend to it,” he says.

While the Eurasian Roller was lucky to bump into Good Samaritans who helped her back to life, others don’t make it to their destinations and back home.

Such is the fate that befell a white Stock that left Poland and covered over 6,000km only to be electrocuted in Kimogoon village, Nandi County. Yet another unlucky one was Osprey that had travelled from Finland only to die in Siaya County.

The world marks World Migratory Birds Day today, with a focus on light pollution. Artificial light, which is increasing globally by at least two per cent every year, is known to adversely affect many bird species.

Light pollution is a significant threat to migratory birds, causing disorientation when they fly at night, leading to collisions with buildings, perturbing their internal clocks, or interfering with their ability to undertake long-distance migrations.

BirdLife International’s State of the World’s Birds Report, 2022 says in the last 500 years, birds have been declining in species and numbers. The report says out of 11,000 identified bird species, at least 160 have been confirmed as extinct.

“For those not yet considered threatened, the majority are in decline and have much-depleted populations,” the report states.

In Kenya, the report revealed 70 per cent decrease in the Raptor species, which consists of birds of prey such as vultures.

Migratory birds face challenge of loss of habitat both along the flyway and their intended destinations through deforestation, draining of wetlands, agricultural expansion and loss of urban natural habitats due to infrastructure development.

Along the way, birds encounter heavy storms that kill huge populations, climate change resulting from global warming, and collusion with power lines, skyscrapers and tall communication towers. And yet others are trapped and killed for food while others are trapped by solid waste materials such as nylon.

But why would a bird embark on such a dangerous journey?

Every year 3.5-500 million of Eurasian migratory birds leave their Palearctic wintering grounds in Europe and Asia and fly to Kenya and other sub-Saharan African countries, covering up to over 20,000km.

“Migratory birds leave their homes during winter when food resources are scarce due to chilling low temperatures, to the tropics, where there are insects and lots of food being produced due to the presence of the sun,” Imboma explains.

He says Kenya hosts most of these birds because of its unique and diverse habitats and biodiversity.

Musina says since Kenya straddles the Equator, migratory birds tend to spread out following areas with enough food. 

He says the East African Rift flyway supports over four million long-distance migratory birds every season. Another major flyway is along the shores of Lake Victoria, through Mt Elgon up into southeastern South Sudan and eventually crossing over to the Ethiopian highlands.