'Bird of the year' population more than halved in 20 years

The long-tailed duck.
The long-tailed duck. Source: Uku Paal

The long-tailed duck is the bird of the year and their numbers are rapidly declining, threatening extinction.

Long-tailed ducks are tundra-breeding seabirds that spend the winter in the Baltic Sea.

Ornithologist Leho Luigujõe told Klassikaraadio's "Delta" program that this sea duck is one of the most common birds in the Baltic Sea, where it spends eight months of the year. "We could make it the national bird of Estonia. Of course, one might ask where the bird's home is. Home is always where the nest is and that is in the tundra, but it still spends most of its time in the Baltic," he said.

The sea duck is also known an "indicator species" by scientists. "The long-tailed duck is an indicator of the health of our seas. One of the reasons the Estonian Ornithological Society chose the long-tailed duck as the bird of the year is because of this," Luigujõe explained.

The second reason is that the population of long-tailed ducks in Western Siberia and Northern Europe has declined from 4.6 million to 1.6 million in the last 20 years. "If this trend continues, this bird species will become extinct very soon. It is not uncommon for a large population of a bird species to disappear overnight. You don't see the decline at first because there seem to be so many of them, but they eventually vanish, and it's too late to do anything about it," he said.

According to the ornithologist, the drastic decline in numbers indicates that the state of the sea is not as good as it should be.

He explained that seabirds, fish and seals face significant threats at sea, with encroachment on marine areas posing the greatest threat to seabirds. This means that people are building wind farms and bridges, but that dredging and mining activities can also have an impact on bird populations.

Another threat is marine pollution, specifically oil pollution. "We have heard about the large oil spills, of which we have had quite a few in Estonia, killing 10,000 birds. However, we fail to recognize that there are many smaller marine spills as well. All it takes is a room-sized oil spill and birds can easily come into contact with oil, which means that their feathers can no longer repel water, the water runs under the feathers and the birds freeze to death," the ornithologist explained.

He drew a parallel with wellies: if you have a hole in your wellies, you can no longer wear them, because your feet will get wet. It holds true for birds as well. The bird is doomed with only a single drop of water. Without the ability to repel water and insulate from the cold water, birds die from hypothermia.

The third source of concern is the accidental capture of birds. The number of birds wintering in the Baltic Sea has decreased significantly, owing in part to their vulnerability to capture in gillnets. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has designated the long-tailed duck as vulnerable for these reasons.

"If fishing gear is present in bird-rich habitat and migration stopover locations during bird migration, many birds can become entangled in gillnets," the ornithologist explained.

While waterfowl hunting is not a significant issue in Estonia, a million birds are shot annually in southern Europe and Denmark. Luigujõe said that hunters in Estonia kill approximately 30,000 birds year, but not typically in the wild.

"For starters, you cannot shoot them because they are so far out at sea. Second, it is a small bird that is not as appealing as, say, goose," he said. However, the long-tailed duck is still hunted across a large part of its range. 

There has been a lot of talk recently about building wind farms on the sea.

Luigujõe said that choosing the proper site is crutial.  "Nobody opposes renewable energy, but wind farms must not be forced into inappropriate locations. This is not right and biologists and ornithologists are speaking out against it on behalf of sea birds," the ornithologist said.

Luigujõe explained that the shallower the water, the cheaper it is to build a wind farm, whereas building deeper is more costly. At shallow depths, however, there are once again birds that cannot dive very deep, and there is no reason for them to do so, because the Baltic Sea is very opaque and there is no food on the seafloor.

"Herein lies the source of conflict: the shallow waters of the seas, which are vital migratory and feeding areas for seabirds, are also highly attractive to humans. Also, it is evident that there is significantly more wind at sea than on land. Both scientists and developers must consequently make compromises. We cannot just keep pushing forward as an icebreaker," Luigujõe said.

If you have never seen a long-tailed duck, it's worth taking a ferry to Hiiu or Saaremaa. The second half of April is a great time to observe them migrating," the ornithologist said. "And as part of the Bird of the Year initiative, we will organize a guide to show passengers the seabird from the ferry," Luigujõe added.

Long-tailed duck's flight call is very distinct and easily heard. They begin singing in January and remain very vocal. "The entire Saaremaa coast is filled with the sounds of the long-tailed duck on a calm, beautiful winter day around the end of January or the beginning of February. It cannot be mistaken for anything else," he said.


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Editor: Kristina Kersa

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