declining bird species

Half of world’s bird species in decline

One in eight bird species in danger of extinction warns State of the World’s Birds 2022 report

Birdlife International, the global partnership of NGOs that works to conserve birds and their habitats, has released a follow-up to their 2018 State of Birds Report. In the latest report, State of the World’s Birds 2022,  based on data collected by expert groups and collated from published conservation papers, BirdLife has found that 49% of bird species are declining (up from 40% in just four years), one in eight are threatened with extinction, and at least 187 species are confirmed or suspected to have gone extinct since 1500. Just 6% of bird species globally are increasing.

Amongst a wealth of grim statistics, several make especially depressing reading. In Australia, for example, 43% of abundant seabird species have declined between 2000 and 2016: Director of the Centre for Ecosystem Science at UNSW Professor Richard Kingsford says Australia’s seabirds are threatened where they forage at sea from commercial fishing and pollution, as well as by habitat degradation and introduced predators such as rats at breeding sites. Since 1970, 2.9 billion individual birds have been lost from North America: more than 90% of the losses (more than 2.5 billion birds) come from just 12 families including the sparrows, blackbirds, warblers, and finches. Since 1980, Europe has lost 600 million birds (19%) with previously abundant and familiar species such as Common Swift, Common Snipe and Rook being pushed towards extinction. Europe’s farmland birds have shown the most significant declines: 57% have disappeared as intensive agriculture and pesticides has meant massive habitat loss and food unavailability.


A million plant and animal species threatened with extinction

The report points out that up to a million plant and animal species are now estimated to be threatened with extinction, many of which may disappear within decades.

The threats currently impacting the greatest number of globally threatened bird species are all human-based: agricultural expansion and intensification (1,026 species, 73%), logging (710 species, 50%), invasive and other problematic species (567 species, 40%) and hunting (529 species, 38%), while climate change is already a significant threat (479 species, 34%) with the loss of wildlife to wildfires being highlighted in 2022’s report.

Unsustainable consumption and economic development are the underlying drivers. The growing demand for meat and timber drives expansion of agriculture, fisheries and forestry; expanding towns and cities drives development of residential and commercial areas and related infrastructure; and the international wildlife trade (legal and illegal) is causing huge losses and increasing the risk of introducing both alien species and spreading disease.

Avian flu – which arose out of the intensive poultry industry in East Asia – has torn through UK seabird colonies this year, crashing populations of Northern Gannets and Great Skuas. Across the Channel, 10% of France’s total breeding population of Sandwich Terns is believed to have died in the space of a week, with many also reported dying in the Netherlands.


Birds better-studied and more visible than many other taxa

Birds are better-studied and more visible than many other taxa, so are good indicators of what’s happening across a range of ecosystems.

As Dr Stuart Butchart, chief scientist at BirdLife International, explains: “Birds are useful for telling us about the state of the planet. What they say is that nature is in poor condition, lots of species are in decline. We have to stop these declines and start getting on track for recovery. Our future, as well as the world’s birds, depends on it. If we continue to unravel the fabric of life, we’re going to continue to place our own future at threat.”

The BirdLife report was released ahead of December’s COP 15 in Montreal, where new legislation to tackle the biodiversity crisis could be drawn up. Dr Butchart hopes the findings will feed into the final statement from Montreal. “The key action needed now by governments is to make sure a really ambitious and bold global biodiversity framework is adopted. We’ve got to bend this curve, so by 2030 we’re on a mission of being nature positive.”

It also came just before the start of the shooting season began here in the UK. While BirdLife International makes no comment on the shooting industry, it’s clear how many of the threats to birds described in the State of Nature Report are mirrored by it.

Shooting imports vast numbers of non-native species every year, for example, including more than 50 million Common Pheasants and Red-legged Partridges. Despite complacent claims made by the industry that Avian Flu won’t be an issue when those imported birds are released, outbreaks have already been reported across England, and our own investigation into Leighton Hall in Lancashire, which is on the edge of important wetland reserves, recorded an extremely worrying (and upsetting) number of diseased pheasants. And shooting of course continues to pump lead shot, an environmental toxin, into the countryside while shooters still target declining Red Listed birds like Woodcock and Common Snipe.

Saving the world’s birds will take a paradigm shift in attitude to our relationship with birds and the environment. Here in the UK we may not feel like we can do much to protect Indonesia’s forest birds (BirdLife reports that more are now thought to be held in cages than remain in the wild) or halt the decline in birds like Ethiopia’s Liben Lark which has lost almost all of its once-remote grassland habitat to agricultural cultivation, but we can take action to protect Britain’s wildlife.

We can think about what we eat, what we throw away, about the products we use, and how we can create wildlife spaces in our gardens. And we can campaign and make our voices heard.