Australian Birdlife magazine

Our Bird Conservation Strategy: Save Birds. Save Life.

Thursday, 1 June 2023

  • Estimated reading time 15min

The Bird Conservation Strategy is our ambitious new strategic plan that outlines our goals for the next decade, with a focus on partnerships, global goals and changing the systems that are driving extinctions.

We know that birds are our early-warning system for the health of our planet, and we’ve heard the alarm bells ringing.  Sarah Pearson and Natasha Harris explore what this means for our staff and supporters.

When one of BirdLife Australia’s predecessor organisations, the Royal Australasian Ornithologists Union, began in 1901, its mission was to promote the appreciation and scientific study of Australia’s birds. Very little was known about this new world of Antipodean birds, and the twentieth century saw the gradual accumulation of knowledge about our unique and varied birdlife.

Fast forward to the 2020s. Australia’s population has grown tenfold, driving the transformation of our wilderness into farming and residential land. More than half of Australia’s landscape has been altered, and in our temperate eastern and south-western regions, this figure increases to around 90 per cent. An alarming number of our bird populations are in steep decline, and have been for decades. One in six Australian birds are now threatened, with many—like the Regent Honeyeater, Swift Parrot, Orange-bellied Parrot, Western Ground Parrot—only holding on through intensive conservation actions, including captive-breeding. The information crisis has become an extinction crisis, and it is a critical time for action.

Reaching our ambitious strategic goals requires a broad public understanding of birds’ importance to humans and all life on the planet, which must be translated into collective conservation action. The means for our success or destruction is in our own hands.

— Paul Sullivan, former CEO BirdLife Australia

After more than 120 years at the forefront of bird conservation in Australia, BirdLife Australia has formulated a new Bird Conservation Strategy that continues our long history of science-based conservation, and the power of our partnerships. It’s a roadmap for our part in ending the extinction crisis and putting native birds on the path to recovery.

Turning our love for birds into a guarantee of their future

Former CEO Paul Sullivan was part of the working group behind our new strategy, and describes the work that went before as being about “building the foundations of a strong charity”: investing in digital infrastructure to improve our operational efficiency, allowing us to reach, connect with and empower our supporters, channelling their work into effective programs and projects with real impact.

“But despite our hard work, and that of our volunteers, we were being let down,” said Paul. “Weak nature laws, rampant land clearing, serial funding cuts and unsustainable business practices like intensive agriculture… the system we were in was working against us.”

“It became clear to the Board and leaders that we needed collective leadership, ambition and action by civil society, governments and business.”

With this urgent need for systemic change firmly in mind, a group of staff, volunteers and our Scientific Advisory Group began work on shaping a plan that would be a blueprint for the future we wanted to see. How could we better influence policy and government? How could we amplify our message to reach more people? How could we transform the appreciation for the natural world—awakened in Australians through the long lockdowns—into effective action and advocacy? How could we use our scientific expertise to inform the growing climate-solutions industry?

In recognition of the need for a global approach, BirdLife Australia tied its strategy to the global targets adopted by the United Nations ‘New Deal for Nature’ (the Kunming-Montreal Biodiversity Framework). Tailoring those targets to our context led to the creation of our ambitious, over-arching goals: To stop human-driven extinction of threatened birds and improve the status of at least 30 per cent of threatened birds by 2032, with the ultimate goal of halting overall bird species population declines by 2050. This is our part in delivering BirdLife International’s Global Strategy 2023–2032, which was agreed at the 2022 World Congress.

Everyone, no matter where they live, can enjoy birds. But plenty of people can no longer see all the birds they used to see. This strategy is the roadmap for turning around bird population declines and reversing the extinction crisis.

—Martine Maron, former President of BirdLife Australia

“The goals are enormously ambitious, but essential,” said former President Martine Maron. “We are losing birds, one by one, from so many places in Australia—even within my lifetime, many fewer people can enjoy the full range of birds that used to live where they do. And with a much greater awareness of how urgently we must act, and that the responsibility for environmental destruction is society-wide, this is an opportune time to lift our ambition.”

Saving nature by fixing our systems

The framework of the strategy was built around the familiar pillars of ‘species, sites and society’—the way much of our work is targeted now. “But to deliver the change we need at scale, a new ‘systems’ pillar was added,” says Paul. “This is what excites me the most: we need governments and businesses on this journey.”

“Our long-running campaign to change our broken nature laws is finally paying off, which is a massive first step. But we need so much more—proper funding for conservation, the end to taxpayer-subsidised logging of old-growth forests, to name a few. And that’s where our new strategy comes in.”

Reflecting on BirdLife Australia’s strong history of conservation, Martine agrees that the new approach is crucial to meeting the challenge ahead. “With our dedicated network, we have won some important battles for threatened birds, and we will continue to fight those battles. But we need to change the system so that important places are no longer threatened in the first place, that adequate resourcing for species recovery is no longer a rarity, and that preserving the nature upon which we all depend is at the forefront of decision-making by governments and business.”

Our approach to changing systems is detailed in the new Bird Conservation Strategy and is based on scaling up and stepping up our existing programs, extending our existing partnerships and taking a creative approach to forging new ones. To achieve our goal of a pro-nature society, we need to not only substantially amplify our current impact, but target it where it matters most.

To influence we need to build power. The voice of communities, progressive business, research and our civil society partners needs to be so loud that it cannot be ignored. Our Strategy provides a blueprint for shaking up the system—because nothing less will save our birds or way of life.

—Samantha Vine, Head of Conservation and Science

As Head of Conservation and Science, Sam Vine explained: “While this Strategy is very much focused on recovering birds, it is also about putting nature at large on a path to recovery. To do that, we have to trace back threats to the root cause, to the systems and drivers that have led us to this mess we’re in. We need to influence government policies and corporate practices, including those influencing investment in conservation.”

Our work in the carbon and biodiversity markets is an example of this kind of systemic intervention. These markets are a mechanism to keep tabs on the environmental impact of businesses, and a growing way for them to mitigate their negative effects through the purchase of credits in tree-planting and environmental restoration projects. The quality of these projects, though, is key: are they truly helping restore biodiversity, or are they just a quick fix? Our Nature-based Solutions Manager, Lachlan Dawson, says that as this sector grows, it’s an important time to intervene for the better.

“Some revegetation projects plant monocultures of exotic trees to maximise the carbon sequestered for the lowest cost. They can end up having negative effects on birds and other wildlife,” he said.

“But we’re in the perfect position to guide the growth of the carbon market so that it has positive outcomes for Australia’s birds. We’ve got the scientific expertise to co-design best-practice restoration projects, and can harness the statistics accrued through Birdata to target priority areas and protect key bird communities.”

It’s necessary to support and reward landholders for being positive stewards of native habitat on their property, whether that’s in preserving habitat that’s already there or restoring habitat that was lost in the past.

—Lachlan Dawson, Nature Climate Solutions Manager

Lachlan is currently working on a large-scale biodiverse restoration project in WA that is funded by a generous donation from the Doley family, long-time residents of the area and keen conservationists. All involved want to make sure the project generates even more impact for woodland birds by being a ‘best-practice’ model that will influence the rest of the sector.

“For me, the fact that our new Strategy focuses on the big picture, and is taking a systems-level approach to bird conservation—it really lets us examine and influence the drivers of bird declines, and that is crucial,” Lachlan added.

Global ambition

Lindall Kidd, Migratory Shorebirds Program Coordinator, just spent a week in the remote Exmouth Gulf with a team of shorebird biologists from around Australia, catching shorebirds for an important new tracking project. Perhaps more than most, she’s aware of the need to think and act globally when it comes to protecting birds.

“Protecting our migratory shorebirds is a complex challenge, involving a range of people across political boundaries, as well as social, cultural and economic interests. They cross through multiple countries on their way here, and when they head north again.”

Red-necked Stints in flight
Red-necked Stints. Photo by: Sandy Horne

Migratory shorebirds, like the three Bar-tailed Godwits the team fitted with trackers, make an annual return journey of many thousands of kilometres between their breeding grounds in the northern hemisphere, and their non-breeding grounds in the southern hemisphere. They face a multitude of threats, from the destruction of intertidal habitats, pollution and human disturbance to climate change, and none of these problems can be solved without addressing what drives these processes at a global level.

“One of the key action areas of the Strategy is to influence economic and social drivers—we need to improve environmental and conservation legislation, regulations and funding and incentives at all levels of government, including globally,” she said.

The Strategy is an exciting opportunity to address some of the global conservation challenges that we face in Australia, such as the protection of our awe-inspiring migratory birds.

—Lindall Kidd, Migratory Shorebird Program Coordinator

The current tracking project aims to get a clearer picture of when and where the birds occur along the East Asian–Australasian Flyway. This information will help identify critical areas of concern for populations, the extent of decline and how best to target our conservation work.

“Our new Strategy takes a big-picture approach to complex conservation issues, which is what I find most exciting. Most threats to migratory shorebirds are caused by human actions, and this strategy is unique in recognising that our shorebirds can only be protected if we work to support and empower local communities, not just within Australia, but along their entire migratory route.”

The Bar-tailed Godwits, along with around two million fellow shorebirds, will soon be making their way back along the Flyway, providing Lindall and her team vital information in the process. The connections they forge to empower international groups throughout the Flyway will be crucial for the success of Lindall’s project, and for the protection of all migratory birds. “For now, all three birds are hanging in the bay where we caught them, but they will soon migrate north. And we’ll be following them!”

Collaboration is critical

One of the key strengths of the new Bird Conservation Strategy is the emphasis on partnerships. Partnerships are already at the heart of our work, and the new Strategy recognises this and aims to realise this potential more fully by strengthening existing partnerships and establishing new, non-traditional ones—such as our carbon project partners and our part in the Victorian Landscape Conservation Partnership.

Our work with seabirds is a key area for effective partnerships. With one of the world’s longest coastlines and largest marine areas, we have a “massive global responsibility for the conservation of this rapidly declining group of birds,” according to Emily Mowat, Seabird Project Coordinator at BirdLife Australia, who says advancing “transboundary conservation” is integral to positive results for seabirds.

“Some of Australia’s most-loved birds—like our Little Penguins—are seabirds, yet they are strangely flying under the radar of public perception and conservation actions. The new Strategy provides a framework for expanding our seabird work,” she said. “We need to address the threats they face across their whole range, not only while breeding or foraging in Australian territory. Partnering with international conservation organisations is vital for the kind of global advocacy we need.”

And at home, the local partnerships with Indigenous groups and others are pivotal in providing the data on which sites are most important for seabird breeding and foraging. “To identify these sites, we use our existing Key Biodiversity Areas Program, as well as further targeted monitoring and research with local groups. We can then implement conservation actions for these sites with our partners,” Emily said.

Under the new Strategy, we will be scaling up our conservation impact by increasing our global advocacy through partnerships with international organisations. This is particularly important for seabirds, as they’re not bound by national jurisdictions. Australia has more than 80 seabirds and a massive global responsibility for the conservation of this rapidly declining group of birds because of our large coastline and marine area.

—Emily Mowat, Seabird Project Coordinator

The long-running Birds on Farms program, targeting woodland birds and their habitats, is another example of the partnership approach that is so important to our overall Strategy. Australian farmers are responsible for the management of over 50 per cent of our landscape, and as such, are crucial to the process of restoring the environment. Working with farmers and landholders to promote more sustainable agriculture practices, plant trees and navigate the government incentives available for land restoration has proven to be a successful way of achieving our objectives. Birds on Farms has strong backing from a philanthropist who shares our belief in systems change. The program now operates in four states, and through our partnerships with individual landholders as well as Landcare organisations, we are perfectly placed to take advantage of the growing opportunities in government funding for land restoration.

Red-necked Avocets in flight, reflecting on the water. They are an Australian endemic that frequent our inland wetlands.
Red-necked Avocets are an Australian endemic that frequent our inland wetlands. Photo by: Lawrence Chan

A bird’s-eye vision for the future

A strategic document is, by its nature, all-encompassing, and everyone who works with and supports BirdLife Australia will take away different parts of it to guide and inspire their work. James Matcott, Digital Campaigner at BirdLife Australia, sees the Strategy as a means of ‘sharpening the saw’ so that our ongoing activities deliver more impact.

The new Strategy means that everyone can step into BirdLife Australia and make a very real difference for birds and for nature. In a decade, we will look back with pride at the boldness of the Strategy, and at the opportunities it gave everyone in the BirdLife Australia family.

—James Matcott, Community Organiser

“We’re taking on admirable goals, while focusing on all our strengths,” he said. “We see the citizen science data and surveys, widespread community engagement and local advocacy—all driven by our wonderful volunteers—underpinning our conservation science in a structured, logical, change-focused way. This means everyone can step into BirdLife Australia and make a very real difference for our birds.”

With so many different projects going on around the country, staying connected to the united purpose of BirdLife Australia can prove a challenge at times, but to maximise the impact of our work, it’s important to make sure all the individual pieces are working in concord towards our bigger goal.

“Sometimes it’s hard to see above the reeds,” admits Chris Purnell, Wetland Birds Manager. “You focus on the problem that’s right in front of you, the one you know best.”

“For me, the Strategy is valuable as a conceptual model. It not only gives us a bird’s eye view of the complex ecosystem we are working in, but a roadmap to tackle the many nuanced, cross-sector, secondary factors which influence how we effectively conserve birds.”

I’m excited to see how our bird-brains can be expanded to better consider the aspirations of those we may not have traditionally considered our allies. The opportunities for nature-based solutions and better communication of our science to the public has already initiated a flow of civic environmentalism. I can’t wait to see how all these streams coalesce to form a strong and empowered conservation ecosystem.

—Chris Purnell, Wetland Birds Program Manager

Ashton Berry, Conservation Action Plan Coordinator in our Urban Birds team, values the new Strategy for the clarity it brings to our everyday work—and the reminder of what’s at stake.

The new Strategy is a clear statement of what Birdlife Australia is, what it stands for, and what it’s going to do to help save Australia’s birds.

—Ashton Berry, Urban Birds Conservation Action Plan Coordinator

“It gives us a clear vision of what BirdLife Australia is, what it stands for, and what it’s going to do to help save Australia’s birds,” he said.” It’s an important point of reference we can all use—staff, volunteers, as well as our partners and stakeholders—to anchor and remind ourselves of where we are going and what we need to be doing.”

As we move into this next phase, Sarah Pearson is hard at work with program staff to develop measurable targets so we can check our progress and share it with our partners, supporters and donors. But the energy the Bird Conservation Strategy has given us is already palpable. Ashton Berry perhaps describes it best: “The Strategy inspires action by creating a sense of urgency—birds are so important, and if we don’t want to lose them, we need to step up and scale up our combined actions before it’s too late.”

Sarah Pearson is BirdLife Australia’s Conservation Strategy and Planning Coordinator.

To read more about the Bird Conservation Strategy, click here.