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How a severe drought in Africa caused whitethroat population to drop

June 30, 2022

By Paul Homewood

h/t Paul Weldon

Even by the Guardian’s lowly standards, this is down there with the worst:




More than 50 years ago, in the spring of 1969, Britain’s birders noticed that something was amiss. Whitethroats – which until then had been one of the commonest migrant visitors to the country – were missing from their usual hedgerow haunts.

The reason for their absence turned out to be a severe drought. This took place during the autumn and winter of 1968, in Africa’s Sahel zone, a narrow strip of land south of the Sahara where many British whitethroats spend the winter.

The drought led to a major shortage of insect food, which resulted in the deaths of millions of whitethroats – perhaps as many as four out of five. The following spring these birds failed to return north; hence the title of a seminal paper, Where Have All the Whitethroats Gone?, in the British Trust for Ornithology’s journal Bird Study.

The good news is that, since then, this engaging little warbler has made a partial comeback. This spring, whitethroats have returned in force, and are singing their scratchy song from almost every hedgerow around my Somerset home.

The bad news is that this was one of the very first indications that the world’s climate was changing; and that droughts in Africa may become more regular as a result. What a pity that we didn’t heed that early warning from the whitethroats, all those years ago.;amp;amp 


The Sahel drought he refers to lasted from the late 1960s to the early 1980s, and was by far the worst drought there in recorded history. It occurred as a direct result of global cooling.

Since then, as global temperatures have recovered, the rainfall has returned to the region, and the desert has greened:



Recent "greening" of the Sahel: The results of trend analyses of time series over the Sahel region of seasonally integrated NDVI using NOAA AVHRR NDVI-data from 1982 to 1999. Areas with trends of <95% probability in white.

In spite of Stephen Moss’ assertions, The Sahel has long experienced a series of historic droughts, dating back to at least the 17th century. They have nothing to do with his “changing climate”

But at least the Whitethroat will be grateful for a warmer climate!

  1. Dave Ward permalink
    June 30, 2022 11:55 am

    Wildlife adapts – always has, and always will. Many Cetti’s Warblers now spend all year in the UK, and so do Blackcaps (another Warbler) – I’ve seen them on my snow covered back lawn. If they can obtain enough food from the numerous feeders people like myself put out, why take the risk of flying thousands of miles to Africa and back?

    • Ian Magness permalink
      June 30, 2022 7:03 pm

      Just to be pedantic, Cetti’s Warblers (most unusually for warblers but Dartford being another) are all-year-round residents and always have been. Their population, however, waxes and wanes considerably over time, partly due to climatic changes (they hate really cold winters) but also due to the fact that they are one of many birds that are right on the edge of their natural range in Britain. Right now, they are doing fine so are much more widespread in Britain than they were a generation ago.
      By contrast, Blackcaps are very predominantly summer visitors and breeders. Some have always over-wintered but attributing that to staying and/or milder winters is tricky. Why? Because at least some of the overwintering Blackcaps are not the same ones that bred here – they are migrants from further north, perhaps Scandinavia. Our nesters are probably further south. Bird migration is really complicated and, as birds like Blackcaps don’t carry passports saying “born in Sweden” or perhaps “born in Surrey” we can’t look at a bird in winter and judge that it has stayed around the same area since birth. We learn more about bird migration every year but there is probably far more that we don’t know, than what we do. Bit like climate change!

  2. Devoncamel permalink
    June 30, 2022 12:39 pm

    Any event can be ‘misinterpreted’ to confirm a bias. The only species dying out is the incredibly rare objective journalist.

  3. MrGrimNasty permalink
    June 30, 2022 12:53 pm

    Bird populations boom and bust, fact of nature.

    The latest climate propaganda angle seems to be to drag up some old story/event and sign off ……. little did we know this was an early sign/warning of climate change.

  4. MrGrimNasty permalink
    June 30, 2022 1:32 pm

    According to this although listed as amber in the UK, it’s green everywhere else. The scoring system they use to assess population rise and fall during various periods from 1800 to 1995 is 0, i.e. no change since 1800 overall, despite scoring minus 3 in the period covered by this drought.

  5. Julia Townsend-Rose permalink
    June 30, 2022 1:39 pm

    I wish someone would explain why cooling causes drought

    • June 30, 2022 2:38 pm

      During global cooling, the tropical rain belts retreat to the equator, and the Sahara moves south.

      Drought and heat are totally unconnected – drought is caused by lack of rainfall

      • Stuart Hamish permalink
        July 1, 2022 9:17 am

        It can be complicated Julia but it has a lot to do with evaporation rates
        and reduced atmospheric moisture content ….The Chilean Atacama Desert’s extreme aridity is exacerbated by the southern ocean cold waters and cold winds streaming up from Antarctica .wedged on the other side by the Andes cordillera . The cold waters off southern Madagascar partly explain why the southern tip of the island is more prone to droughts than the north

        Paul is right : the worst Asian mega droughts of the last millennium were the 17th century Ming Dynasty droughts and the 15th century drought that shattered the Angkor civilization .. Then there were the Tudor Droughts of 1538 – 42 that seem to have affected the eastern North American colonies as well ..The Sahel , East Africa and the Indian subcontinent were wracked by terrible droughts in the late 1960’s and 1970’s during the global cooling ‘climate crisis’ extending into the mid 1980’s Tony Heller published an old 1974 NOAA bulletin that makes for enlightening if not amusing reading warning of a drought driven looming Third World food crisis

      • Stuart Hamish permalink
        July 1, 2022 9:36 am

        Olsen’s Standard Book of British Birds – the ‘Expurgated Version ” ……The one without the Whitethroat

    • Phoenix44 permalink
      June 30, 2022 4:39 pm

      Cooler air holds less moisture.

      But cooling causing droughts in certain areas may be more complex than that.

  6. Stephen Lord permalink
    June 30, 2022 1:52 pm

    The promoters of the climate hoax are now resorting to outright lies.

    • Harry Passfield permalink
      June 30, 2022 2:20 pm

      What do you mean, now, Stephen? It’s been going on for more than 20 years!

  7. Tim Spence permalink
    June 30, 2022 2:41 pm

    It would appear this was a catastrophic event that happened between 1968 and 69. An above average population emigrated and an unusually small number returned. There is data but not good enough to indicate the cause.

  8. Phoenix44 permalink
    June 30, 2022 4:41 pm

    The claim that a single event in 1968 was an “early indicator” of climate change is beyond stupid. Its utterly anti-science.

    • MrGrimNasty permalink
      June 30, 2022 6:30 pm

      As I mentioned before, the program about the summer of ’76 the other day suddenly went climate cult at the end and retrospectively cited it as an early sign of climate change. It’s obviously their latest propaganda strategy.

      • Penda100 permalink
        July 1, 2022 4:43 pm

        Everything can be blamed on Climate Change. Australia’s Ambassador for Women and Girls believes that Climate Change causes domestic violence. (Spectator Australia)

  9. Mark Hodgson permalink
    June 30, 2022 7:52 pm

    I’ve just been writing about the Sahel and its long history of problematic climate, here:

    Niger Negatives

    • MrGrimNasty permalink
      July 1, 2022 9:26 am

      Mongolia is a similar situation.
      An extreme harsh unpredictable highly variable climate year to year with large tracts that could only ever support sparse nomadic populations. So they blame climate change when the population exceeds what the land/ lifestyle can support and migrates to primitive cities. They are already working on and making progress with the air pollution, but obviously the best solution would be a cheap reliable fossil fuel powered electric grid.

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