How many of our birds are destined to go the way of the passenger pigeon?

Today marks a hundred years since the last passenger pigeon, once the world’s most abundant bird, died making the species extinct. On the 1st of September 1914 Martha, the last individual passenger pigeon, died at Cincinnati Zoo in the US. At 12 noon today the bird keepers at ZSL London Zoo commemorated the occasion by stopping the clock on the tower outside the Victorian bird house.

During the 19th century the flocks of passenger pigeons would regularly darken the skies often consisting of more than a hundred million birds. However, a huge surge in hunting and deforestation drove them to extinction in just a few decades. The species went from the most numerous bird on the planet to extinct in one human generation and today is known as one of the most dramatic losses of a species due to human activity.


The last passenger pigeon Martha displayed at the Smithsonian Institution.

This 100th anniversary is not only a way to remember the species but to reflect and draw attention to the numerous other species that face extinction due to our actions. The passenger pigeon is far from the only bird to disappear from the UK. The wryneck, a brown, sparrow-sized woodpecker, which was once common across both England and Wales, has not bred in the UK since 2002. The RSPB warn that other species such as the turtle dove and warbler may be facing a similar fate.

The turtle dove is the UK’s fastest declining bird species with numbers currently halving every six years. This means that numbers are just 5% of what they were in 1970. The last estimated population, by the RSPB’s rare breeding bird panel in 2009, suggested there were only 14,000 pairs left in the UK. Similarly the marsh warbler has decreased to just seven pairs in 2012 compared to the 73 pairs in 1973, when the panel started.

The panel’s latest annual report, published this week, covers 2012 which experienced a particularly wet and stormy spring with the wettest June for a century causing extensive flooding and damage to trees. This has serious consequences on a number of rare birds such as the honey buzzard, red kite and little ringed plover just to name a few.

Not only are many birds are beginning to feel the impacts of the changes in weather and climate but also in land use. Intensification in farming has reduced the availability of wild flower seeds which many species depend on. Habitats in which birds thrives such as marginal areas around farms, scrub and thick hedges are disappearing. Furthermore migrant birds which winter in Africa are experiencing desertification and deforestation which has cleared land of forest which once provided shelter.

Many common birds are also being affected. The latest Breeding Bird Survey revealed that all three UK wagtail species are in long-term decline. The number of Yellow wagtails, grey wagtails and pied wagtails have all reduced, with yellow wagtails experiencing a 43% reduction between 1995 and 2012. While the exact cause in unclear, a number of integrating factors have been suggested such as changes in river habitat, agricultural practices and a decline in coppicing, the cutting back of trees to encourage dense woodland. The wagtail is of particular importance with the yellow and pied wagtail largely confined to only the UK.

However it is not all bad news with some species seeing a rise in numbers. The little egret which did not breed in the UK until 1996 now has 90 known pairs. One of the UK’s more dramatic success stories is the rise of the bird of prey the osprey. With only 16 pairs of the species reported in 1973, 2012 saw a report of 209 pairs. Finally, the avocet, the black and white bird that has become the RSPB’s symbol, is now up to almost 2000 pairs from just 149 in 1973.

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Abi Gardner

I'm a Ecosystem Services (MSc) student at The University of Edinburgh, with a background in Environmental Geography. I'm passionate about ecology, biogeography, environmental management, sustainability and climate change.

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