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On a Wing and a Prayer: The UK’s Most Endangered Birds

Posted on Jun 21, 2016 by Glen Cousquer

Every moment I share with the birds that are our neighbours leaves me feeling humble. Find out about the UK’s most endangered birds and what we can do to help.

Yesterday evening, I heard the insistent call of some great spotted woodpecker (Dendrocopos major) chicks, deep within their nesting hole.  I scrambled down a steep slope to confirm my suspicions, taking care not to approach too close.  The nest hole had recently been quarried out of the trunk of a venerable silver birch.  It was one of those profound unscripted moments in which I felt grateful for my senses.

There are some bird sights and sounds that are always make my heart rejoice.  The haunting call of the curlew (Numenius arquata), piping out across the moors. The quizzical stare of the puffin (Fratercula arctica).  Sharing such magical moments with clients and the immense privilege of being there is something we at Wilderness Scotland take great pride in.

It is sad to reflect on the number of our feathered friends who are struggling.

On a wing and a prayer- the UK's Most Endangered Birds 2

The mighty White tailed Eagle – at risk but still sighted across the Inner Hebrides

The UK’s most endangered Birds

The Birds of Conservation Concern Red List is a report showing which birds are globally threatened and are suffering severe (over 50%) population decline in the UK over the last 25 years.  

The full list of the UK’s birds under threat can be found here. There are now 67 bird species within this category in the UK. Nineteen species were red-listed for the first time due to worsening population status.

There have been declines in the breeding population of some of my favourite upland birds, including the curlew, the merlin and the grey wagtail (Motacilla cinerea).  In total, five upland birds (Curlew, Dotterel, Grey Wagtail, Whinchat and Merlin) were added.  Three woodland birds (Woodcock, Nightingale and Pied Flycatcher) were added to the list.

The Puffin and Merlin, meanwhile, find themselves back on the list because of the species’ vulnerable status globally.

This is all deeply worrying.

On a wing and a prayer- The UK's Most Endangered Birds

The grey wagtail has long been a feature of the clear streams and rivers of Scotland.

 

Why are more birds at risk?

The decline of the grey wagtail is estimated to be of the order of 32% since the British Breeding Bird Survey started.  Whilst the causes of the decline remain unclear, it is thought to be due, in part to a series of poor breeding seasons in 2012 and 2013.

In the case of the curlew, the decline of this species was estimated to be of the order of 45% between 1995 and 2011!  Studies suggest this decline was partly due to nest predation and low breeding productivity.  Their habitat has been impacted by the changes to our uplands due to increased grazing and farming. Curlew nesting success tended to be higher on sites managed by gamekeepers, due to increased predator control.  Foxes rather than crows were thought to have the most impact. Nesting success tended to be lower on sites where conifer plantations surround the open moorland where the curlew bred.  These areas carry higher fox populations.

Understanding these population trends and, in particular, the worrying declines, necessitates painstaking research.  It is important that we support this valuable work.

Where species such as the skylark and grey partridge are concerned, the cause of their decline is thought to be attributable to the intensification of agriculture.  The widespread use of pesticides continues to have an impact.  Responsible farmers manage their land in order to provide skylark plots that enable these birds to rear their young.

What can we do to help?

  • Consider supporting the Scottish Ornithology Club, British Trust for Ornithology or Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in their work studying our breeding birds.
  • Consider helping out with breeding bird surveys.
  • As consumers, we do have the choice to support farmers who encourage song birds and manage their land accordingly.  This not only supports birds, it also supports local farming communities and reduces our carbon footprint by buying locally.
  • Consider supporting local organic farms by buying food boxes direct from them.  See, for example, Grow Wild, one of Scotland’s acclaimed organic farms.
  • When walking with your dog, don’t allow them into the rough grass during breeding season (1st March to 31st July). This is likely to result in significant disturbance of ground nesting birds.
  • Ask questions of land managers and challenge them to rethink their practices and, in particular, the use of pesticides.
  • Do not leave any food behind when visiting the uplands.  Changing the feeding patterns of corvids and other opportunistic feeders can impact on ground nesting birds.
  • Consider supporting the Wildlife trusts in their work.  Across the UK many Wildlife Trusts are working locally to look after specialist upland species.  They prevent further damage to these compelling places by clearing encroaching scrub, reinstating grazing regimes and reseeding heathers.  Volunteering is a great way of getting out and making a difference.
  • Share your concern, love and appreciation for our birds with others by getting involved with local groups. Take the time to share special moments of appreciation.  Simply letting someone else look through your binoculars or telescope can be significant!

The good news

It is worth pointing out that, whilst we have good reason to be concerned about the decline in many of our birds, there are some great success stories to celebrate too.  The recovery of the red kite (Milvus milvus) is one of the great success stories of the last few decades.  And there are great places to view them across Scotland, including the Black Isle and Perthshire. Hopefully with greater emphasis on conservation, the UK’s most endangered birds list can begin to reduce.

Discover some of Scotland’s most iconic birdlife on our Wildlife adventures.

Further reading:

About the author

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Glen Cousquer

I grew up with a passion for ornithology, wildlife conservation and the outdoors. This led me to study avian physiology and veterinary medicine at the University of Edinburgh before going on to work as a wildlife veterinary officer with the RSPCA. A keen mountaineer, I hold the Summer, Winter and International Mountain Leader awards as well as the Wilderness Guide award.

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