Bird Traffic Lights: Red, Amber or Green?

As far as human lives go, December 2015 was a bit of a mixed bag for the majority of people in the UK. Most of us were either getting ready for Christmas and celebrating with the usual festivities, or devastated by the terrible floods and storms that have relentlessly bashed our little country. With all of this going on, it would be easy to miss something else that came with December 2015. The publishing of the ‘Birds of Conservation Concern 4’.

This ‘List’, also referred to as the UK Red List for birds, has been updated since its last publication in 2009. As the name indicates, it is the fourth such updated review, documenting the status of bird species across the UK, Channel Islands and Isle of Man. Whether they are breeding, passage or wintering, 244 species of bird are assessed by a number of ornithology NGOs, and each species is then assigned to the Red, Amber or Green list.

Sounds a bit complicated! So how exactly do they decide? Well, of course, the lists are based on the most up to date evidence available and the data are based on a number factors. These include both global and European conservation statuses and, within the UK, any historical decline, range, population trends, rarity, localised distribution and international importance. Like the December of 2015, the new list is a bit of a mixed bag, containing both good and bad news.

Now, starting how we mean to go on, let us begin with the good news. It is encouraging to hear that both the Nightjar and the Bittern have shown great improvements in their populations, with both species now moving up the hierarchy from the Red to the Amber List. Although not completely out of the woods just yet, such improvements have been attributed to sustainable forest management and targeted conservation action. Other notable species such as the Stone-curlew and the Marsh Harrier, who have both shown tentative recoveries, have remained on the Amber list. However, perhaps surprisingly, doing even better than these species, is a raptor that was declared extinct in England by 1871. That’s right, the Red Kite can now be classed as one of our greatest success stories, proudly soaring up the rankings onto the Green List. In fact, the Green list now includes a total of 81 species, including a number of common species such as the Blue Tit, Blackbird and Robin. Nightjar
Nightjar Red Kite
Red Kite

Unfortunately, with the good news out of the way, we find ourselves reluctantly facing the bad news. Averting our gaze and twisting our hands, we’d all like to ignore it, but unfortunately, we can’t, nor should we. So, here goes. First, one of the most obvious problems with the new document, is that the list is now totally devoid of three former breeding species, two of which were previously Red listed. The Serin, Temminck’s Stint and the once widespread Wryneck, are all missing. Although the Caspian Gull, is a new species included on the listings, they have been placed directly onto the Amber list.

Overall, the new update highlights many species that are at increasing risk. Indeed, due to their poor population statuses, a total of 19 species find themselves as first timers on the Red list. Sadly, especially for us raptor lovers, the Merlin has returned to the Red list. Who else has suffered? Well, as has been widely reported in the media, the Puffin is now Red-listed due its global assessment as ‘Vulnerable’. Some species have even had a dramatic jump, starting on the Green list, missing the Amber entirely and going directly onto the Red. Such specimens include the White-fronted Goose, due to its non-breeding population decline, and the Long-tailed Duck, classed as globally threatened. Joining them on the Red list, due to huge declines in wintering populations, the Red-necked Grebe, Ringed Plover and Pochard are all on the Red list for the first time, with the Pochard also being recognised as globally vulnerable. The Curlew, Nightingale, Pied Flycatcher, Whinchat, Grey Wagtail and Mistle Thrush are also on the Red list, with such classifications mainly being based on monitoring schemes displaying dramatic declines in their breeding populations. Woodcock also joins the unhappy party on the Red list, due to declines in their breeding range. Unfortunately, all of this has led to 67 species being Red listed, more than 25% of all those species assessed! Merlin

But what does the Red List actually tell us about our birds in general terms? Well, the first thing we know is that despite the fact that they have experienced no new additions on the Red List, farmland birds as a group, have the greatest percentage of species on the Red List (12 out of 26). Whereas, in contrast, lowland wetland birds have the smallest percentage (4 of 31). Upland birds however have seen additions (Curlew, Dotterel, Grey Wagtail, Whinchat and Merlin), bringing their total up to 12. Woodland birds have also seen additions (Woodcock, Nightingale and Pied Flycatcher), meaning that this group now has a total of 16 on the list. Seabirds are also suffering, with Kittiwake, Shag and Puffin being added, and 4 species of sea ducks. Combine these with a number of others, and the seabird numbers on the Red List have almost doubled. Finally, when it comes to urban species, House Sparrow and Black Redstart are the only two on the Red List. Pied Flycatcher
Pied Flycatcher

It’s a lot to take in. Rounding it all up, the Red List currently includes 8 globally threatened species, 16 long distance migrants, 3 of the UK’s 4 game birds and 5 of our 6 thrushes. Altogether it may seem like the bad news outweighs the good quite substantially. However, at least we have this tool to refer to when it comes to conserving and protecting our species. We are aware of what needs to be done, so we can start putting into practice any management plans to conserve our birds. As a child, I had a card game of birds. Each card displayed a bird and included their population, size, weight etc. Whoever had the highest number for a chosen category won. I remember when we played this game, my brother and sister and I would hate getting the Bittern card, as their population was only 16 (so we always lost). At that time it looked like we were going to lose this secretive heron, but not so. They are recovering, slowly, but still recovering. If we can help the bittern, we can certainly do all we can to save the others.

But is such an attitude too optimistic? Maybe. We have after all lost 3 species, so clearly, we did not conserve them. Am I being totally realistic? Perhaps not, there is a lot to do to protect our bird species. But am I defeatist? Never!

‘Attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference.’ – Winston Churchill.



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Eleanor Daisy Upstill-Goddard
I have been a bird enthusiast since I was a child and have just completed my MSc at Newcastle University on 'Biodiversity Conservation and Ecosystem Management.'
Eleanor Daisy Upstill-Goddard

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