The spoon-billed sandpiper is one of the most gorgeous birds on the planet – and also one of the most threatened.  With probably only a few hundred pairs surviving and their numbers thought to be decreasing each year it is a bird destined for extinction in the wild – perhaps.

‘Perhaps’ because the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, Birdlife International, Birds Russia and the RSPB don’t want it to go extinct – and neither do I, and I suspect, neither do you.  I wonder whether there is anyone on the planet that we share with the spoon-billed sandpiper who actually wants this bird to go extinct.  But it is our species, without wanting to, which is driving this species to oblivion.

Loss of wetland habitat on its migration staging posts,  such as the Saemangeum estuary in South Korea, and hunting on the wintering grounds, such as in Myanmar, are thought to be the most important factors at this stage of what we hope will not be a terminal decline.

Who knows, with even more research we may find that there are other factors too.  It might be that predator increases, perhaps driven by human land use changes, have an effect locally.  When you get down to such a low population then a new rubbish dump somewhere which attracts more foxes or skua could easily be a factor in a local decline where a local decline can become a major part of a global decline.  Once a species gets to such a low ebb then every little thing matters. And big things, like climate change, matter too and the Arctic will change more dramatically than lower latitudes due to global warming over the next few decades.

Nature conservationists are pulling together to try to tackle these incompletely known and not necessarily tractable problems across an annual range of thousands of miles which takes in many different countries in a last ditch attempt to save the spoon-billed sandpiper.  And I wish them every success.

But time is short and success is not guaranteed by any means. It would have been a good idea to start 20 years ago one might say, and it probably would have been a good idea but other species were being saved and far less was known about the spoon-billed sandpiper then.  So, better late than never, and let’s hope that all goes well.

But if it doesn’t go well then Friday saw an important step in a brave attempt to keep all options open.  Thirteen ‘spoonies’ were brought to the WWT site at Slimbridge where it is envisaged that they will form a captive breeding programme,  and perhaps, if all goes well, and in future, supply birds for a release programme into the wild.

I commend the team who have managed to get this far with this brave project.  Just think, the 13 birds which arrived at Slimbridge last week were eggs sitting in real spoony nests in northern Asia this summer.  They were found (easier said than done), transported to Moscow Zoo (easier said than done), hatched and reared (easier said than done), kept alive in captivity (all captive birds act as though they have a death wish so, again, easier said than done) and were transported last week from Moscow to the UK and to Slimbridge (a longer migration than their natural one and a stressful journey for the birds (who don’t know they are being kindly helped) and for their transporters who will have done everything they can to make the long journey safe and stress-free but you can never tell what might happen).  The worry won’t end there but it is worth marking the successful completion of these legs of an amazing conservation journey.

And meanwhile a few hundred spoonies are travelling south to their wintering grounds in large flocks of commoner species of wading birds.  Birdwatchers will look out for them on their journeys and hope to see them at sites like Mai Po in Hong Kong, and those spoonies will face the dangers faced by their commoner wading relatives on the long migration route.  Will there be a few fewer spoonies returning to the breeding ground next spring?  That is the expectation for next spring and the next spring until in not many more springs there really may be none.

Let us hope that keeping the spoony in captivity is a great success and that numbers increase at zoos and collections across the world.  But let us also hope that they do not become the only examples of their kind in the world.  Let us hope that the conservation work across the east Asian flyway proves effective and that the wild population picks up and begins to increase through concerted action by governments, agencies, NGOs and indviduals, because hoping is not enough, someone has to do something too.  And ‘doing’ costs money, so since you cannot ‘do’, perhaps you can give so that others can ‘do’.

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4 Replies to “Spoonies”

  1. I know it's heresy to say this, and of course as a hardcore birder I would far rather see Spoon-billed Sandpipers with us for perpetuity than not, but I can't help but feel that it very much helps their cause that they're terribly photogenic and, well, cute...

    There are plenty of other species teetering on the brink - driven there by the usual factors or combinations thereof - habitat loss, over-exploitation, the sheer rapacity and thoughtlessness of man. Many of them don't have the advantage of a pretty face to show the world and make it care. But are they any less needful of a major conservation effort than the Spoon-billed Sandpipers? Maybe all endangered species are equal, but some are more equal than others...

    On the other hand, simply everyone's talking about them, so maybe they've added value as ambassadors for a wider cause. Just as every range of cars needs a GTi or a convertible to cast a halo-effect over its less glamorous brethren, perhaps the introvert invertebrates and reclusive reptiles need Spoon-billed Sandpipers to champion their cause.

    1. Jon - fair enough point indeed. It reminds me, though, of some lectures I went to in Moral Philosophy when I was an undergraduate at Cambridge. The lectures were given by Bernard Williams, the former husband of the politician Shirley Williams. Anyway, the lectures were about moral dilemmas, and took the form of hypothetical examples of you hurtling down a hill in a car with no brakes and the only thing you could do was to turn the wheel to the right or the left. You were going to run over someone or something whatever you did so you had to choose who to kill. An easy starter example was Hitler on one side and Mother Teresa on the other - as I recall we found it easy to choose killing Hitler. But a later example involved choosing to kill/save a pretty woman or an ugly one. We all backed away from saying we would save the pretty one and kill the ugly one - somehow it didn't seem right to us. That is until a very pretty undergraduate piped up and said that if that really was the only information we had then surely we should save the pretty one as the world needed prettiness. We looked, and we agreed. So may it be with spoonies?

      But the range of threatened species do differ in other traits too - feasibility of rescue for one, These decisions are not easy - I know, I've made a few.


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