A Birmingham professor is playing a crucial role in saving the national bird of South Africa - the blue crane - which is dying in its thousands because it keeps flying into high-voltage power lines.
A project was launched to try and work out why the beautiful and rare bird was unable to see the deadly cables, with wind turbines also proving lethal.
Professor Graham Martin from the University of Birmingham School of Biosciences was called in to try and save the species, which is classified as ‘vulnerable’ due to its declining numbers.
The population of blue cranes is almost all in South Africa. Prof Graham investigated the problem in the western cape where 12,000 birds live – of which 1,100 die in this way every 12 months.
The powerline death toll caused by the growing network of power lines isn’t just restricted to the blue crane. Birds including Ludwig’s and Denham’s Bustards are being slaughtered in large numbers, with an estimated 10,000 dying from collisions every year.
With only a maximum of 81,000 of these bustards alive in the world, the future looked bleak – unless a solution could be found.
South African power companies, concerned at the prospect of killing off the country’s national bird, flew Prof Martin, who is an expert in bird vision, into the country.
He said: “A very high percentage in any given area of bustards and cranes were being wiped out – literally every kilometre along the cable routes was littered with dead birds, and there was a danger of them becoming locally extinct.
“We wanted to find out why it was happening and if there was anything that could be done.
“The thing was that although the bustards were suffering greatly it was in fact the blue cranes which were also suffering, which prompted them to fly me over there.
“I was called in by a South African power company. In that country the power is mostly generated in the Johannesburg area but a lot of the output is required down in the Cape of Good Hope area, so they are building more and more power transmission systems across the country.
“The blue crane is the national bird of South Africa and they were very keen to try and work out why so many were dying and being seriously injured by the power lines.”
Prof Martin said the hope was that by somehow making the power lines more visible the bird would be able to avoid them.
He explained: “One idea, for example, would be to somehow make the wires or other danger such as a wind turbine more visible.
“But we discovered that the problem was that when the birds were looking down, foraging for food they are effectively blind in other directions.
“This, of course, would not have been a problem throughout their evolutionary history, but it is now a problem because humans have stuck high obstacles into what should be open airspace.
“What it did mean was that doing things like painting turbines a lurid colour, or trying to hang things on the wires to make them visible wouldn’t work.
“So therefore we had to look at finding ways of trying to attract the birds to other areas away from the power cables, mainly by doing things like creating attractive foraging habitats in other locations.”
A programme has now been started to put Prof Martin’s recommendations into action, with the power company working with land owners to create decoy areas to attract blue cranes away from flight paths that would take them through power lines.
Prof Martin is hopeful the work will succeed: “This is a long term solution and it is too early to say whether this has reduced crane collisions but there is evidence to suggest that birds are attracted to these decoy areas. He has also carried out similar work on eagles and vultures in Europe which are also prone to collisions with power lines and with wind turbines. Like the cranes they too do not see ahead of them when flying over and looking downwards for food, which in the case of vultures is carrion.