Dear Readers, we had a bit of good news a few days ago, but we have to take the rough with the smooth, and the latest ‘Birds of Conservation Concern‘ publication from the British Trust for Conservation has some sorry news about the decline of some of our most familiar species. The last report was in 2015, and since then eleven species in total have been added to the Red List, making a total of 70 species considered to be at risk of extinction in the UK. As usual, the reasons for the changing status of the birds are varied, but they’ve certainly given me pause and made me consider what, if anything, I can do personally to help.
Six species have been red listed for the first time because of worsening declines in their breeding populations. House Martins and Swifts are both listed, and the reasons for their declines include the fall in the insect populations across the whole of their migratory range and the worsening quality of their stopover sites and wintering grounds. This view is supported by the fall in numbers of those other migratory insectivores, nightingales and cuckoos (already on the Red List).
I am always personally horrified by the destruction of martin and swallow nests by householders who can’t tolerate the mess at the nesting sites. As usual, the answer to the falling insect population is bigger than just us, but providing for not just pollinators but insects in general in whatever gardens we have is important, plus encouraging councils to plant something other than generic geraniums and begonias. I may well pop up a swift nesting box as well, as I know some people have had success with them, especially when the swifts are encouraged to ‘pay attention’ by the playing of the calls of breeding pairs. I’d love to know if any of you have had any success!
Greenfinches have also suffered a catastrophic fall in numbers, moving straight from the Green list to the Red list in the space of 6 years. This is largely due to the digestive diease trichomonosis. The report notes that this disease is also now prevalent in collared doves and chaffinches, and in sparrowhawks which eat all these species. The best advice is to regularly clean all feeders, to take all feeders down for at least a week if you spot a sick bird. It has been several years since I’ve seen one in the garden.
Another new bird to the list is the ptarmigan – this is not unexpected as montane species are the most affected by climate change. As snow cover becomes less common in winter, the white colouration of these birds is less effective as camouflage, making them more vulnerable to predators, plus their food plants are also affected. There’s not much that I can do to protect the poor old ptarmigan, except to keep donating to the RSPB.
And, although I have a large-ish pond, there’s not much I can do to help the declining Bewick’s swan either, nor the Dunlin or the Smew, all Red-List newcomers. All three species are winter migrants to the Uk from Scandinavia and the Baltic regions in ‘normal’ times. Some of these birds might not be showing up in the UK any more because climate change means that conditions are not so harsh, and so they don’t have to travel so far to find food, showing that warming temperatures will produce winners and losers. However, there does seem to be a more general decline in these species, which is being investigated. As all of them are dependent to some degree or another on water quality and wetland habitat, I suspect that the dgradation of these habitats along their migration routes may have a part to play,
Other new bird species with the dubious ‘honour’ of joining the Red List include the Purple Sandpiper, the Goldeneye and Montagu’s Harrier. The final newcomer is Leach’s Storm Petrol, a tiny sea-faring bird with 90% of the UK population breeding on the remote island of St Kilda. I suspect that the decline in this bird, along with many of our oceanic species, is a result of the decline in the small fish and marine microorganisms that the birds eat.
Fortunately it isn’t all bad news: the Pied Flycatcher, Song Thrush, Grey Wagtail and Redwing all have breeding populations that have recovered enough to move them from the Red List to the Amber List, while the Kingfisher, Mute Swan and Red Grouse have moved from Amber to Green. I would love to know if the increase in the Red Grouse numbers has come at the cost of the breeding success of birds such as the Hen and Montagu’s Harrier, who often turn up dead in mysterious circumstances on grouse moors. Still, we should applaud successes when we see them, because it’s clear that habitat conservation and restoration is one of the best ways to nurture the insects and detritivores who are so important in the food chain. I was also heartened by the news today that UK farmers are going to be paid to nurture their soils though I also note that environmentalists have condemned the measures as ‘puny’, and that they include a lot of measures that many farmers are already doing, such as growing cover crops over winter rather than leaving the soils bare.
It all seems overwhelming sometimes, doesn’t it? But I still maintain that nature is resilient and that we can all do our bit, even if it’s just a pot of lavender or leaving a corner of the lawn unmown. For any one in the UK wanting a bit of inspiration, can I suggest this lovely programme, which over two episodes tracks one man’s efforts to turn an acre of scrub into a wildlife haven in his native Ireland? We don’t all have an acre, but there are some great ideas that could easily be scaled down. And it has some wonderful photography, as you might expect from a wildlife cameraman.
Photo One by Ken Billington, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Photo Two By Andreas Trepte – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=40871366
Photo Three by Charles J. Sharp, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Photo Four by Jan Frode Haugseth, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Photo Five by Maga-chan, CC BY-SA 2.5 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5>, via Wikimedia Commons
Photo Six by By Schlawe, C – Images from the United States Fish and Wildlife Service.U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=871413