Nov 19

The overall bird population in the UK has fallen by a staggering 44 million individuals since 1966, according to a new report.

Photo of male house sparrow on roof tiles

The house sparrow, a species which has declined dramatically in the UK in recent decades

The report, entitled ‘The State of the UK’s Birds 2012’, was put together by conservation organisations including the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) and Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT).

It found that while some species have increased in number, the populations of some common birds have declined dramatically. There are now an estimated 166 million birds nesting in the UK, compared to 210 million in 1966.

Commenting on the report, Dr Mark Eaton, an RSPB scientist, said, “It is shocking to think we’ve lost one in five of the individual birds that we had in the 1960s.”

Worrying declines

Among the worst hit species is the house sparrow, whose population has decreased by 20 million individuals since the 1960s – an average loss of 50 sparrows every hour. Although a slight increase has been reported since 2000, the causes of the overall decline remain unclear.

Photo of turtle dove pair perched on branch

The turtle dove is another species in serious decline in the UK

Birds that rely on farmland have also fared badly. The population of farmland birds is now less than half what it was in 1970, with species such as the lapwing, cuckoo and turtle dove suffering significant declines. Scientists believe that these declines are largely due to changes in the landscape which have removed suitable feeding and nesting habitat.

Some of the UK’s marine species are also in trouble. For example, two sea ducks, the long-tailed duck and the velvet scoter, have undergone large declines across Europe and are now globally threatened.

Not all bad news

The findings did reveal some more positive results, with some species showing large population increases. For example, the wood pigeon population has doubled in size since the 1970s, now standing at around 5.4 million nesting pairs, while species such as the bittern have recovered well from previous declines, largely as a result of focused conservation efforts.

Another species doing well is the great-spotted woodpecker, which has increased by 368% since the 1970s. Unfortunately, its smaller relative, the lesser spotted woodpecker, has dramatically declined and may now number fewer than 1,500 pairs, making its population too small for scientists to monitor properly.

Photo of female great-spotted woodpecker on tree

Great-spotted woodpecker, a species which has increased in the UK

It’s like the bird populations of the UK are on a roller-coaster, and we’ve seen a lot of ups and downs,” said Grahame Madge, an RSPB spokesperson. “We have more species breeding in the UK now than any other time in history… but we’ve got 44 million fewer individual birds nesting than in the 1960s.”

He went on to add that despite the success stories, the overall findings of the report were of concern. “When you see en masse that the UK has lost such a huge number of birds, the figures themselves are quite staggering,” he said.

UK Overseas Territories

The report also looked at the state of birds in the UK’s Overseas Territories, which hold some of the world’s most vulnerable birds, including Critically Endangered species such as the St Helena plover, Tristan albatross and Gough bunting. Many of these species face a range of threats, from oil spills and fishery bycatch to human developments and volcanic eruptions.

Photo of northern rockhopper penguin pair at nest

The report also looked at species in the UK Overseas Territories, including the northern rockhopper penguin

There is also concern for the northern rockhopper penguin. Over 80% of this penguin’s population occurs on the UK Overseas Territories of Tristan da Cunha and Gough Island, but worrying population declines of over 90% have been recorded in these two locations.

Citizen science

Most of the information upon which the report was based comes from the efforts of volunteers who contribute to national monitoring schemes, such as the Breeding Bird Survey and Wetland Bird Survey.

According to Dr Tim Hill, Natural England’s Chief Scientist, “The State of the UK’s Birds report is a great example of ‘citizen science’ in action… Such schemes provide a high quality evidence base underpinning the work of government, conservation organisations and land managers in their joint efforts to conserve the natural environment and its wildlife.”

Photo of bittern in flight

The bittern population is recovering in the UK thanks to conservation efforts

David Stroud of the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) said, “This report highlights the value of undertaking a periodic ‘stock-check’ of bird numbers in the UK – information central to many aspects of conservation. Thanks to the efforts of the bird watching community, such assessments are readily available within the UK, but these data do not exist for most of our Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies. We need to strengthen efforts to establish routine survey and monitoring in these areas in the light of their global importance for many bird species.”

Read more on this story at BBC Nature News, The Guardian and the RSPB.

Read the full report at The State of the UK’s Birds 2012.

View photos and videos of birds from the UK on ARKive.

Liz Shaw, ARKive Text Author