ExplorersBio

Çağan Hakkı Şekercioğlu

Ornithologist/Conservation Ecologist

Emerging Explorer

Photo: Cagan photographing a bird.
Photo: Çağan Hakki Sekercioglu

Photograph by Erik Forsyth, Rockjumper Birding Tours

By the end of this century, 25 percent of all bird species may be extinct. “That’s 2,500 unique species,” Çağan Şekercioğlu, assistant professor at the University of Utah Department of Biology, warns. “Many pressures that will ultimately affect other animals, and even people, are happening to birds first. They are, quite literally, the canaries in the coal mine.”

Şekercioğlu not only documents the trend, but also works to reverse it by integrating his work as a highly cited scientist, director of an award-winning grassroots conservation organization, and accomplished wildlife photographer.

Şekercioğlu (whose first name means “hawk”) meticulously gathers data from fieldwork and scientific literature, then combines it with global warming and habitat loss scenarios to estimate bird extinctions. His binoculars get a workout. He’s seen 55 percent of the planet’s birds in 70 countries and on every continent. The mountains of data he collects on bird ecology, conservation status, biogeography, and migration are consolidated into a unique global bird database. This comprehensive tool, documenting more than 10,000 species, gives ornithologists a bird’s-eye view of where and how populations are changing around the globe. “With a database like this, you can look up anything you want in a second.” The tool, combined with his field experience, provides special insights into birds’ lives.

Şekercioğlu charts and analyzes the causes and consequences of vanishing bird populations via projects in biodiversity hot spots such as Costa Rica, Turkey, Ethiopia, Nepal, and Tanzania.

He notes that while most of the world’s species live in the tropics their risk is underestimated because only a sliver of data from those regions exists. In response, his studies increasingly follow the flight and plight of tropical mountain birds. “As global climate warms, these birds are pushed higher and higher up the mountain in search of the cool, humid conditions they need to survive. I call it the ‘escalator to extinction.’ Climate change squeezes them into narrower and narrower ranges. What’s more, the relationship between bird extinctions and warming is not linear. Once you cross the 2˚C threshold, extinctions soar.”

He monitors birds in Costa Rica’s forest fragments and agricultural areas to document the effects of habitat loss and land use. In one of the longest tropical bird banding and radio-tracking projects ever, more than 50,000 birds (over 250 different species) have been captured and banded at stations he has established. His study shows some populations shrinking fast, especially insectivorous birds. “These very specialized birds feed only in the forest understory,” he explains. “They’re so adapted, and feel so safe, they won’t leave. Even though much better, less fragmented forest may lie only a hundred yards away, they won’t cross human-dominated farmland to reach it. Protected areas alone aren’t enough. We must work with local people to improve the biodiversity capacity of agricultural land and increase connectivity of protected areas.”

When birds are lost, so are health, food, money, and ecosystem services. On Jamaican coffee plantations, the insect-control contribution of birds was calculated at $310 per hectare. When Dutch apple trees were surrounded by nets allowing insects, but not birds, to permeate, crop yield dropped 60 percent. Rainforest species feed on an astonishing array of different plants, excreting and dispersing seeds across wide swaths of land, preserving forest growth and speeding regeneration as they go. (In fact, the sheer act of traveling through a bird’s gut may make seeds less likely to develop pathogens.)

Nowhere are the human consequences of bird loss more dramatic than in India. When vulture populations crashed by 95 percent and left land strewn with rotting carcasses, feral dog and rat populations skyrocketed. In subsequent years, more than 30,000 people died of rabies, a bubonic plague outbreak occurred, quarantines and evacuations ensued, and media attention led to embargos costing India more than $2 billion. A 2008 study calculated that vulture loss cost India approximately 48,000 lives and more than 35 billion dollars. Vultures are now vanishing across Africa as well, denying lions and other animals the crucial ability to follow circling birds to carcasses.

Şekercioğlu’s rare ability to combine world-class science with local conservation efforts gives communities new reasons to protect threatened bird habitats. “I don’t see conservation as people versus nature, I see it as a collaboration.” In Ethiopia, his data will help farmers who produce shade-grown coffee gain special certification and more money for their bird and biodiversity-friendly product. In his home country of Turkey, he organized village-based bio-cultural tourism that brings bird-loving visitors flocking to a lake where more than half the country’s winged species can be spotted. “We donate our time, so all profits go straight to the village,” he explains. “It’s become a crucial source of local pride, income, and incentive for protecting the lake.” He integrates his passion for photography into academic articles, lectures, books, and educational outreach. “Facts and figures are often not enough,” he observes. “People need to feel the personal, emotional connection photography can provide.”

“The whole time I was growing up, I loved collecting animals and wouldn’t stop bringing home insects, hedgehogs, and lizards. My mother thought I was absolutely nuts and took me to a child psychiatrist,” he recalls. The world’s birds are doubtless quite happy his obsession was never cured.

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“Birds are like winged sentinels, signaling our planet’s future. They are disappearing at a phenomenal rate, all across the world.”

—Çağan Hakkı Şekercioğlu

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Hear an interview with Şekercioğlu on National Geographic Weekend.

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