The Christmas carol “The Twelve Days of Christmas” may soon have to be shortened by one verse, as a European partridge is listed as near threatened. Meanwhile, paradise is being restored for a flycatcher, proving that conservation can do great things. Discover these and more in our summary of fascinating findings from this year’s update of the Red List …
1. Red-legged partridge loses its pear tree
This may not be the Christmas news you want to hear especially in 2020. This year, however, another bird species from the popular Christmas carol “The Twelve Days of Christmas” was placed in a higher threat category on the IUCN Red List. The red-legged partridge, Alectoris rufa, a colorful, instantly recognizable gamebird, was classified as near threatened in this year’s update. The other bird mentioned in the Christmas carol is the European turtledove Streptopelia turtur, which has been classified as endangered since 2015. Both species are declining for similar reasons, including intensification of agriculture, habitat loss, and unsustainable hunting.
Although the red-legged partridge is commonly seen on farmland across southwestern Europe, farming practices are becoming more intense, homogenizing the mosaic of different habitats it needs for nesting and feeding. This includes field edges, hedges, and orchards (including pear trees!). Overhunting has likely contributed to this too: recent research suggests that over 60% of the estimated population can be shot each year – another sign of the urgent need to make both agriculture and hunting practices more sustainable.
2. Status of mysterious volcanic island birds revealed
Vanatinai Island, also known as Tagula, is a remote volcanic island in the southwest Pacific, 360 km southeast of Papua New Guinea. It resembles Jurassic Park, with its dense, forested mountain range looming through smoky wisps of cloud, and its bird species have been as mysterious as the dinosaurs from which they emerged for many years. Due to the island’s remote, inaccessible landscape, little scientific research has been carried out, and so far some species have been classified as “lack of data” on the Red List.
This year for the first time we know enough to be able to correctly assess the status of three species: the Tagula Honeyeater Microptilotis vicina, the Tagula Butcherbird Cracticus louisiadensis and the Tagula White-eye Zosterops meeki. And it looks like we did this just in time, as two of the species – the Tagula Butcherbird and the Tagula White-Eye – are near threatened. Logging, agricultural expansion and commercial prospecting for gold are destroying their rainforest habitats. Much of these important new discoveries came from research by a scientist, William Goulding, whose goal is to improve knowledge of all endemic bird species in Tagula and the wider Louisiade archipelago. His research projects employ and train the local population and include education and awareness campaigns for the island communities.
3. Junín Grebe swims against the tide of extinction
Another species was removed from the list of critically endangered species this year thanks to the hard work of scientists, government agencies and locals. The Junín Grebe Podiceps taczanowskii is a unique flightless diving bird that can only be found in Lake Junín in the Peruvian highlands. Unfortunately, in the 20th century, the house to which it had adapted so perfectly became a polluted prison destroyed by runoff from mining activities and sewage. Worse still, its nesting sites would suddenly and fatally dry out if water were withdrawn to supply hydropower plants. By 1993, only 50 birds survived, and the fate of the entire species was at stake.
Fortunately, his plight did not go unnoticed. The lake has been designated as a Ramsar wetland of international importance and an important bird and biodiversity area. In 2002 the Peruvian government passed an emergency law to clean up large areas of water and restrict water abstraction. As part of BirdLife’s High Andean Wetland project, we helped the Peruvian conservation group ECOAN set up long-term research and education programs for the community. The species has become a flagship for high Andean wetland protection, and while the tide hasn’t completely turned – it is still endangered – it is definitely heading in the right direction.
4. Audouin’s seagull in a sudden colony collapse
After population growth and a broadening of the range in the last few decades, no one expected Audouin’s seagull, Larus audouinii, a well-known Mediterranean seabird, to be threatened with extinction again. Alarm bells began to ring when researchers reported the collapse of their largest breeding colony in the Ebro Delta in northeastern Spain after several years of very low breeding. Although some birds are moving and forming new colonies, the total has fallen sharply since 2010 – which is to be expected when the site where two-thirds of the world’s population lived is no longer habitable.
Audouin’s Seagull, Copyright Glyn Sellors, from the Surfbirds Galleries
So what happened in the Ebro Delta? It seems to be a combination of factors, all of which are man-made. On land, the loss of suitable habitat meant that as the predators naturally increased around the hatchery, there was nowhere else for the gulls to escape. Indeed, many of the relocated colonies are in sub-optimal habitats such as shipping ports. Problems persist even at sea. Unusually for large gulls, Audouin’s gull is more of a specialized fish eater than a scavenger and is therefore at risk of overfishing. The species is also a frequent victim of accidental bycatch by fishing vessels. And although we don’t yet know the full picture, this year’s update of the Red List has shown us where to look.
5. Seychelles Paradise-Flycatcher: Paradise restored
Great news for the Seychelles paradise flycatcher Terpsiphone corvina, a breathtakingly shimmering songbird whose name Terpsiphone means “delightful voice” in Greek. As of this year, the species is no longer considered critically endangered. Formerly confined to the island of La Digue in the Seychelles, the population has steadily increased over the past two decades and has been successfully returned to another part of its former range, the island of Denis. The new colony is growing and thriving, and the melodious, whistling call of the flycatcher can be heard in the island’s forests, now free of predators thanks to an ongoing habitat restoration program. A third population was introduced on Curieuse Island in 2018-2019 and has already successfully started breeding.
This encouraging success is the result of years of hard work by Nature Seychelles (BirdLife Partner) and its employees. Together, they built a nature reserve from scratch, along with an education center and a large-scale public awareness campaign. This included a trip to the establishment of water baths in schools and community centers to help all birds survive the dry season. The flycatcher is still listed as Endangered and much of its habitat is still threatened by development projects, but its home is at least one step closer to paradise.
6. The local love for the black-necked crane helps with his recovery
The black-necked crane Grus nigricollis has moved one category closer to safety this year, from endangered to near-threatened – a shining example of the power of protected areas and the restoration of habitats. This majestic water bird lives in the wetlands of the Tibetan Plateau in western China as well as in adjacent parts of northern India and Bhutan. Over the years, this habitat has been affected by intensive agriculture and urbanization.
Fortunately, there is already a lot of love for the bird in the church. It is revered in Buddhist traditions and culturally protected in large parts of its range. And while the birds are careful with people, sometimes they get used to locals who don’t bother them. In fact, according to the BNHS (BirdLife in India), the cranes seem to be able to distinguish people in traditional clothing and are particularly careful of others. This offered the unique opportunity to raise awareness and win over local people for bird protection. Every November Bhutan hosts a festival to raise awareness about crane protection and the black-necked crane is the state bird of Jammu and Kashmir, India. With a recovering population and nature reserves, the future looks bright.
7. Campbell Teal: Home at last
This year, the Campbell Teal Anas nesiotis becomes yet another success story in New Zealand’s ongoing quest to control invasive species and restore the natural balance of their habitats. This small, iridescent, babbling duck is unusual in that it is both flightless and nocturnal. It has been reclassified from “at risk” to “at risk”. This is especially impressive given that it was considered extinct for many years after it was wiped out by Brown Rats in its hometown of Campbell Island, 700 kilometers south of mainland New Zealand. In 1975, however, it was rediscovered on Dent Island, a tiny nearby island that had remained rat-free. It was time to bring this small, fragile population back into their former reach.
After much trial and error, conservationists managed to successfully breed this picky bird in captivity. An “insurance population” was released on Codfish Island that was already pest free and intensively farmed for the kakapo Strigops habroptila (critically endangered). Restoring the larger, more remote, and rougher Campbell Island was a far more ambitious proposition, as the New Zealand Department of Conservation used helicopters to cast bait all over the island. In 2004, after nearly a century, the species was brought home and has been thriving ever since.
Visit our hub page to stay up to date with all the news from this year’s Red List update.