Catastrophic fall in numbers reveals bird populations in crisis throughout the world

Northern Wheatear

The birds of the world are in serious trouble, and common species are in now decline all over the globe, a comprehensive new review suggests today.

From the turtle doves of Europe to the vultures of India, from the bobwhite quails of the US to the yellow cardinals of Argentina, from the eagles of Africa to the albatrosses of the Southern Ocean, the numbers of once-familiar birds are tumbling everywhere, according to the study from the conservation partnership BirdLife International.

Their falling populations are compelling evidence of a rapid deterioration in the global environment that is affecting all life on earth – including human life, BirdLife says in its report, State of The World’s Birds.

The report, released today with an accompanying website at the BirdLife World Conservation Conference in Buenos Aires, Argentina, identifies many key global threats, including the intensification of industrial-scale agriculture and fishing, the spread of invasive species, logging, and the replacement of natural forest with monocultural plantations.

It goes on to suggest that in the long term, human-induced climate change may be the most serious stress.

Based in Cambridge, BirdLife International is a global alliance of conservation organisations working in more than 100 countries and territories which is now the leading authority on the status of birds, their habitats and the issues and problems affecting them.

When brought together, as in its new report, the regional pictures of bird declines combine to present a startling picture of a whole class of living things on a steep downward slope.

A remarkable 45 per cent of common European birds are declining, with the familiar European turtle dove, for example, having lost 62 per cent of its population in the last 25 years, while on the other side of the globe, resident Australian wading birds have seen population losses of 81 per cent in the same period.

Twenty common North American birds have more than halved in number in the last four decades, while in Asia, the millions of white-rumped vultures which once filled the skies have crashed by 99.9 per cent and the species is now critically endangered.

“Many of these birds have been a familiar part of our everyday lives, and people who would not necessarily have noticed other environmental indicators have seen their numbers slipping away, and are wondering why,” said Dr Mike Rands, BirdLife’s chief executive.

All the world’s governments have committed themselves to slowing or halting the loss of biodiversity by 2010, but reluctance to commit what are often trivial sums in terms of national budgets means that this target is almost certain to be missed, according to the report.

“Birds provide an accurate and easy-to-read environmental barometer, allowing us to see clearly the pressures our current way of life are putting on the world’s biodiversity,” Dr Rands said.

“Because these creatures are found almost everywhere on earth, they can act as our eyes and ears, and what they are telling us is that the deterioration in biodiversity and the environment is accelerating, not slowing.

“Effective biodiversity conservation is easily affordable, requiring relatively trivial sums at the scale of the global economy. For example, to maintain the protected area network which would safeguard 90 percent of Africa’s biodiversity would cost less than $1bn a year. Yet in a typical year, the global community provides about $300m.

“The world is failing in its 2010 pledge. The challenge is to harness international biodiversity commitments and ensure that concrete actions are taken now.”

The State of the World’s Birds report can be found at

Birds in peril


The report highlights the decline of common European birds. An analysis of 124 of Europe’s common birds over a 26-year period reveals that 56 species (45 per cent) have declined across 20 European countries, with farmland birds badly hit. The familiar common cuckoo Cuculus canorus has declined by 17 per cent. The European turtle dove Streptopelia turtur, grey partridge Perdix perdix and corn bunting Miliaria calandra have dropped 62, 79 and 61 per cent respectively.

*African migrants to Europe

Birds migrating between Europe, the Middle East and Africa have suffered 40 per cent population declines over three decades. “Birds impacted by agricultural intensification in Europe may suffer excessive hunting in the Middle East and desertification of African wintering grounds,” warned Dr Rands. “The Eurasian wryneck Jynx torquilla, northern wheatear Oenanthe oenanthe, and common nightingale Luscinia megarhynchos are vanishing.”


Birds of prey are in widespread decline. In just three decades, 11 eagle species declined by 86-98 per cent in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger. In addition, six large vulture species – including the once widespread Egyptian vulture Neophron percnopterus – have suffered very dramatic losses.

*Middle East and Central Asia

Many common species such as the Eurasian eagle owl Bubo bubo are under pressure. “The global population of Houbara bustard Chlamydotis undulata may have fallen 35 per cent in the past 20 years,” noted Dr Rands.


“Thirty years ago, tens of millions of white-rumped vultures Gyps bengalensis were flying the skies of Asia. The species was probably the most abundant large bird of prey in the world: it is now on the brink of extinction,” Dr Rands said. Numbers have fallen by 99.9 per cent since 1992. “Migratory shorebirds and the wetland habitats they rely on for their annual journeys, are also under threat,” added Dr Rands. Sixty-two percent of migratory waterbird species in Asia are declining or extinct.

*North America

Twenty common species have suffered population declines of over 50 per cent in the last 40 years. “Northern bobwhite, Colinus virginianus, has declined the most dramatically, with population reductions of 82 per cent,” noted Dr Rands. Other widespread species suffering include the evening grosbeak Coccothraustes vespertinus (78 per cent), northern pintail Anas acuta (77 per cent) and boreal chickadee Poecile hudsonicus (73 per cent).

*North America to Latin America migrants

“57 per cent of neotropical [Central and South American] migrants monitored at their breeding grounds in the US have suffered declines over the last four decades,” warned Dr Rands. “Migratory species such as the Wilson’s phalarope Steganopus tricolor and semipalmated sandpiper Calidris pusilla are disappearing.”

*Latin America

Bird monitoring in El Salvador reports that 25 per cent of common resident species – including the flame-coloured tanager Piranga bidentata, chestnut-capped brush-finch Arremon brunneinucha, and collared trogon Trogon collaris – have experienced significant declines over the last decade. No monitored species saw their numbers rise. “Formerly widespread species like the yellow cardinal Gubernatrix cristata, once common in Argentina, are endangered,” noted Dr Rands.


“Studies of resident Australian waders reveal that 81 per cent of their populations disappeared in 25 years,” said Dr Rands. Seabirds are threatened at a faster rate globally than all other groups. Nineteen of the 22 species of albatross are threatened with extinction, including the critically endangered Chatham albatross Thalassarche eremita.

By Michael McCarthy
Monday, 22 September 2008

Source: The Independent

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