New report shows declines in UK forest birds

New data show a long-term decline in forest bird species. Some specialized forest species have declined dramatically, including the willow tit, which has seen the second largest decline of any widespread British bird. Overall, the number of native birds has decreased. There are 19 million fewer breeding bird pairs in the UK than in the late 1960s. The distribution and numbers of birds in the UK are changing dramatically, with many species seeing worrying declines, according to a new report.

The State of the UKs Birds 2020 (SUKB) – the central point of contact for the latest results from bird surveys and surveillance studies – underlines the persistently bad fate of British forest birds this year.

The forest bird indicator has shown a long-term decline of 27% since the early 1970s, with a decline of 7% in the last five years. More worryingly, some specialized forest birds have declined dramatically, including willow tits, which has seen the second largest decline of any British bird. The breeding populations of five other species (lesser spotted woodpecker, lesser red poll, spotted flycatcher, capercaillie, and marsh tit) are now less than a quarter of what they were 50 years ago. Changes in the way our forests are managed are seen as the leading cause.

Spotted Flycatcher, Copyright Glyn Sellors, from the Surfbirds Galleries

The endemic subspecies of the willow tit in the UK is the fastest decreasing widespread species in the UK. Their population has decreased by 94% since 1970 and by 33% between 2008 and 2018. The RSPB, Natural England, and others have investigated the root causes of decline and new forest management practices are currently being tested to halt the decline. With the numbers declining, annual monitoring of this type is becoming increasingly difficult, prompting a targeted UK survey to estimate the numbers in 2019/20.

The report also highlights new numbers that estimate that there are 83 million pairs of native breeding birds in the UK. A comparison with previously published figures shows that there are 19 million fewer native breeding bird pairs in the UK compared to the late 1960s. As the number of some species has increased, with Wren being an example, the extent of the numbers actually lost is much greater, with around 43 million pairs total. House sparrows have been hit hardest, and there are now 10.7 million fewer pairs than in 1966. The wren population has grown by 6.5 million pairs and is the most numerous bird in Britain.

The report has better news for some species. In Wales, house sparrows increased by 92% from 1995 to 2018. The house sparrow is still the third most common breeding bird across the UK, but the millions of pairs that have disappeared since surveillance began in the late 1960s are making these increases in context.

Climate change is expected to have an impact on bird populations in the UK and is the reason, for example, of the increase in the number of Cetti warblers. For several large waterfowl, including great egrets, cattle herons, small herons, small bitterns, and spoonbills, better protection of both the birds themselves and the wetlands they need also appear to be contributing to the increase.

The populations of some of the UK’s rarer breeding bird species have also increased, some as a result of concerted conservation efforts such as cirl buntings, curlews and corncrakes. These restores are a good example of maintenance success and a cause for optimism. However, some species still need ongoing conservation support.

Fiona Burns, UK State Birds 2020 lead author, said, “The UK birds tell us that nature is on the decline. The ongoing losses of many species are unsustainable and more needs to be done to stop the decline and revive and recover populations. These results are in line with our previous 2019 State of Nature Report which found 41% of all UK species are in decline. Further measures are needed to deal with the natural crisis. “

David Noble, Director and Chief Ecologist at BTO said: “Volunteers play an essential role in bird surveillance in the UK by donating their time, energy and expertise. The data they collect is critical to maintaining, tracking changes, and developing policies. This year, many surveillance systems have been impacted by the global Covid-19 pandemic, and we would like to express our special thanks to everyone involved for their continued support during this difficult time. “


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