The Uncertain Return of Beijing Wildlife

The sky above Beijing is best known for characteristics other than its bird life. Nevertheless, the city’s birds appear to have multiplied over the past ten years thanks to new habitats offered by reforestation to combat dust storms and areas such as the Olympic Forest Park. This resurgence reflects a revival of wildlife on the ground. From Hudson Lockett at Danwei:

Outside a cafe in east Beijing, a small bird fluttered to the ground and hopped and pecked at the concrete. Beijing Bird Watching Society member Li Ming cracked a smile and said “Passer montanus.” A humble sparrow, which Li says is the city’s most common bird, with the magpie a close second.

You can find both species in the Illustrated Guide to Wild Birds of Beijing (北京野鸟图鉴) published in 2000. The book contains photos and descriptions of 276 species, but Li says he and his fellow bird watchers reckon there are now 430 species in the city and the surrounding countryside if you include migrants that only come for the summer.

On Twitter, Stuart Morris conspiracy-theorised about the increase: “perhaps some birds have been released for the same reason miners used to take canaries underground.”

But while numbers and diversity may have risen since 2000, there has been a backward slide in the last two years or so, according to a pair of graduate students who have been monitoring bird populations in the Olympic Forest Park. From the Danwei article:

… Over the two years of observation Cheng and Xing Shuang have seen the number of species and their populations decrease; Mandarin ducks wintering at the park, one of the bellwether species mentioned by Xie, have fallen from a peak of around 200, probably thanks to subway construction around the park’s water area ….

… Meanwhile changes in how buildings are designed have put Beijing’s swallows and swifts in a tough spot: the awnings and eaves of older buildings they once relied on for nesting nooks have been replaced by the sleek facades of high rise apartments and office buildings. As Beijing sprawls outward, the marshlands that the birds rely on for nest-building materials are retreating, Cheng said. The city is expanding and restructuring into a landscape that is increasingly inhospitable to its airborne residents.