Extinction on the Horizon for One-Fifth of All Bird Species

CAMBRIDGE, UK, June 1, 2005 (ENS) - More than one in every five bird species on Earth is now considered to be in trouble, according to an annual assessment issued today by BirdLife International, a global alliance of conservation organizations working in more than 100 countries. By contrast, last year's report showed that one in eight species were facing extinction.

BirdLife International's annual evaluation of how the world's bird species are faring shows that the total number considered to be threatened with extinction now stands at 1,212.

This number is one fewer than last year's figure of 1,213 globally threatened species, but when added to the number of near threatened species, of which there are 788 this year, this totals exactly 2,000 species in trouble - more than a fifth of the planet's remaining 9,775 species.

"Despite the recent rediscovery of the ivory-billed woodpecker, overall more species are currently sliding towards oblivion," said BirdLife's Communication Officer, Ed Parnell.

"One in five bird species on the planet now faces a risk in the short or medium-term of joining the dodo, great auk and 129 other species that we know have become extinct since 1500," Parnell said.

Of the species in trouble, 179 are now categorized as Critically Endangered, the highest level of threat.

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The Azores bullfinch numbers fewer than 300, but its home range has just been protected under European law. (Photo by Simon Cook courtesy BirdLife)
In this category is the Azores bullfinch, Pyrrhula murina, one of Europe's rarest songbirds, which has been in decline since the early 1990s. Today there are fewer than 300 individuals left. Still, there is some hope for this bird now that its entire home-range has been declared a Special Protection Area by the Portuguese government, affording it some protection under European Union law.

Ninety-nine species have changed category since BirdLife's 2004 assessment. "Some have gone up and some down," says Parnell, "but in total 10 more species face a worse future according to this latest set of data."

Several species from Europe appear on the list for the first time, such as the European roller, Coracias garrulus, for which key populations in Turkey and European Russia have declined; Krüper's nuthatch, Sitta krueperi, a mainly Turkish species that has declined because of tourism development in its key habitats; and red kite, Milvus milvus, which has experienced large declines across Europe, despite a successful reintroduction program in the UK.

These three species move from the Least Concern category to that of Near Threatened.

Despite the best efforts of conservationists in New Zealand, two more of its species have taken a step closer to joining the long list of previous extinctions there, largely because of introduced rat population explosions in 1999 and 2000.

Two New Zealand native bird species - the red-fronted parakeet and the rock wren - have been added to the list of globally threatened birds. A further seven native bird species have had their global threat status upgraded to a higher threat category.

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New Zealand's yellowheads have been translocated from the Blue Mountains to remote islands in an attempt to restore their numbers. (Photo credit Massey University)
Rat predation resulted in the loss of two populations of yellowhead, Mohoua ochrocephala, and its uplisting from Vulnerable to Endangered. The orange-fronted parakeet, Cyanoramphus malherbi, fared even worse, with its numbers reduced to tens and the species now classified as Critically Endangered.

“If these birds continue to decline at this rate, the only place to hear them in a few years time might be on the National Radio bird-call slot,” said Kevin Hackwell, conservation manager of the Royal Forest and Bird Protection Society of New Zealand. “Introduced pests have contributed to the decline of at least six of the nine bird species upgraded in today’s reassessment,” he said.

“This reassessment is a disturbing reminder that New Zealand needs to do more to stem the decline of its approximately 800 threatened species,” he said. "High predation during a breeding season could wipe out the orange-fronted parakeet forever,” he said.

Five species are known to have become extinct in New Zealand since 1900. Among these are the laughing owl, Sceloglaux albifacies, last definitely seen in 1914; the spectacular Huia, Heteralocha acutirostris, last recorded in 1907; and the tiny bush wren, Xenicus longipes, last seen in 1972.

More recently there have been a number of success stories due to intensive conservation work by the New Zealand government and others. In 2003 the New Zealand storm petrel, Oceanites maorianus, was rediscovered, having been thought extinct since the 19th century.

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The Kirtland's warbler is threatened by the brown-headed cowbird, a brood parasite bird that deposits its eggs in nests that belong to other bird species. (Photo by Ron Austing courtesy USFWS)
On the global front not all is bad news, said Parnell. Five species have been downlisted to lower categories of threat, mostly because populations have recovered following successful implementation of conservation measures. These include Kirtland's warbler, Dendroica kirtlandii, a brightly-coloured songbird which breeds in the U.S. state of Michigan, winters in the Bahamas, and has been downlisted from Vulnerable to Near Threatened.

"This is a credit to the efforts of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and others, who have brought this species back from the brink of extinction," observed Dr. Stuart Butchart, BirdLife's Global Species Program coordinator.

"Their actions demonstrate the value of good conservation science: thanks to a thorough understanding of the bird's ecology, conservationists were able to create ideal breeding habitat and reduce the serious threat from parasitic cowbirds," Butchart said. "Today, there are more than 1,200 Kirtland's warblers, from a low point of 167 in the 1970s, so its future certainly looks rosier."

Europe also has a success story with white-tailed eagle, Haliaeetus albicilla, one of the continent's largest birds of prey, which doubled in numbers during the 1990s, moving from the Near Threatened category to that of Least Concern.

Several new species were also found in 2004 including the Calayan Rail from the Philippines.

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The discovery of the Calayan rail was announced in 2004 with the publication of its formal description in the Oriental Bird Club's journal "Forktail." While there is no evidence of a decline yet, like many other rails on small islands, it would be susceptible to habitat loss and predation by invasive species such as rats. (Photo James Eaton courtesy Bird Tour Asia)
Exactly 100 years after the last visit by an ornithologist, a team of bird, mammal, reptile and amphibian specialists arrived in May 2004 on the island of Calayan, one of the Babuyan Islands in the northernmost part of the Philippines archipelago. There, they discovered a new species of rail, which they named the Calayan rail, Gallirallus calayanensis.

"The success stories show that concerted conservation action can save these birds from extinction," said Butchart. But, "overall, the number of species that have slipped further towards extinction is greater than the number we have pulled back from the brink."

BirdLife's revisions to Red List categories, and the associated documentation, are being released on their website today and will be incorporated into the 2005 IUCN Red List, to be issued in autumn 2005. They can be found at: http://www.birdlife.org/datazone/species/index.html