Feature | On the Edge

Why are birds disappearing?

Everywhere, birds are becoming quieter – and it’s not just island species in trouble. Fortunately, we know how to stem the losses of our feathered friends.

Birds are amazing. From hummingbirds, to ostriches, to eagles, their range is staggering. There are more than 11,000 living species, and they can be found all over the world. They have been around a VERY LONG time. Apparently, they’re descended from a type of dinosaur known as theropods. The story goes that a smattering of these critters survived while larger dinos perished when the infamous asteroid struck Earth eons ago. These dinky dinos had a knack for breeding and adapting to their newly dusty domain…

Around the world, birds have a fanbase. Each year, in the US alone, 45 million people are thought to go birdwatching, identifying these often easy to spot, mostly daylight-lovers. Partly as a result, birds are the most widely monitored group. They were the subject of the first International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List, in 1964, which assessed the extinction risk of known species. Since 2004, the conservation organisation BirdLife – the IUCN’s official authority on birds – has published regular reports on their welfare.

Anna's hummingbird (Calypte anna)
Anna's hummingbird (Calypte anna) resting on a succulent

Population declines 

Sadly, these reports aren’t uplifting. According to Birdlife, birds are our ‘canaries in the coal mine’, important for what they tell us about the rest of the natural world. Everywhere, they say, bird populations are dropping. As many as 49% of species are in decline, with one in eight of these at risk of extinction. What’s more, nearly two-thirds of birds live in forests, most of these in warmer countries known as the ‘tropics’. These include Brazil and Indonesia, the two with the highest concentrations of threatened birds. 

Records kept since 1500 tell us that in the past 500 years, almost 200 species have gone extinct. Many were island dwellers, like the Mauritian dodo; the Bonin grosbeak, a finch from Japan’s Ogasawara islands; and the North Island (of New Zealand’s) Piopio. For these and lots of unfortunate others, their ending was spelled by the arrival of settlers with their pet cats, hitchhiking rats, and rabbits brought along for food. Being hunted and having their forests obliterated didn’t help much, either!

Skylark singing in flight
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A European starling with iridescent plumage
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Yellow Wagtails skit across a stream
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Trouble for common species?

However, now birds on larger landmasses within the tropics and elsewhere are in trouble. In the past two decades, two species only found in Brazil’s Atlantic Forest, the Alagoas foliage-gleaner, and the cryptic tree hunter, have gone extinct. A third, the Pernambuco pygmy-owl, hasn’t been seen since 2001. 

Across Europe, common and once abundant birds are disappearing. Since 1980, the continent has lost around 600 million breeding birds, with the common house sparrow the worst affected. Its population has dropped by 50%, a loss of 247 million birds! Yellow wagtails, starlings and skylarks have suffered similarly, losing an estimated 97, 75 and 68 million individuals, respectively. 

Seabirds are also in a tight spot. In the past 50 years their numbers have plummeted 70%, making them not just one of the most threatened groups of birds, but one of the most threatened groups of all vertebrates.

Shoebill (Balaeniceps rex)

Tangled-up WHYs

Lots of things lie behind what’s happening to birds and they’re intertwined. They include:

  • Deforestation, as more land is claimed for agriculture, development, and trees are logged for timber, fuel, and paper. Seven million hectares of forest are lost each year, harvested for wood products. Intensified farming means that birds have less grassland to live on and they suffer the ill effects of larger amounts of pesticides. Since 1980, there’s been a 57% decline in common farmland birds in Europe, with similar declines in North America. 

  • Climate change. Global temperatures are predicted to hit 1.5°C above pre industrial levels between 2030 and 2052. For birds, the repercussions affect where they can live, what they can eat, when they migrate, and breed. By 2,100, it’s predicted that 97% of US birds could be affected by at least two climate-related threats, if temperatures rise by 3°C. Kind of like being evicted by your landlord and discovering that the local supermarket no longer stocks your go-to comfort dinner. 

  • Invasive alien species (IAS), aka dogs, cats, rats, and plants, like Japanese knotweed, which take hold outside their natural range. They affect predator-prey relationships and what grows. Since global trade began, IAS have devastated native bird populations, being at least partly responsible for 46% of known bird extinctions. And they can have an ongoing effect. Romans brought domestic cats to the UK and their 21st century descendants are estimated to kill 160 to 270 million creatures a year, a quarter of them birds. 

  • Hunting and trapping. Almost half of bird species are used by humans. As well as being caught as pets (40%) and food (15%), birds are trapped for sport and traditional medicine. Between 11 and 36 million birds are taken and killed illegally each year in the Mediterranean; in Southeast Asia, 66 to 84 million songbirds are thought to live in captivity – more than in the wild! 

Biodiversity and preventing future losses

The more birds we lose, the more the incredible variety we know as ‘biodiversity’ suffers – and with it the processes we all depend on. Like the great hornbill in India’s Western Ghats, birds are vital pollinators, seed dispersers, and pest controllers. Not only do they look after our forests, they provide us with food, clean air, and water. Their songs make us feel better. 

We’d be crazy to lose them, and we don’t need to! There are effective ways to avoid trapping seabirds in nets; to deal with invasive species; to reduce harmful pesticides. We are living in the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration. It’s estimated that if just 15% of pastureland in priority areas was restored to its natural state, 60% of expected bird, mammal and amphibian extinctions could be avoided!

Rimatara lorikeet © desertnaturalist

 Let’s preserve areas important to birds!

We need to protect and restore these areas – many of them Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas (IBAs), as well as globally significant Key Biodiversity Areas (KBAs) they overlap with. It’s also key to recognise the role local and Indigenous communities play in protecting birds, as areas important to birds lie both in, and outside protected areas. And it can be done! On Rimatara, in French Polynesia, locals are planting trees to help the scarlet chested Rimatara lorikeet, which was almost wiped out by hunters, IAS, and deforestation.

Watch our animated short film about the Kauaʻi ʻōʻō bird

The Unseen

Further reading

We must do more to fuse birds and the benefits they bring into our thinking, our policies and planning. If you want to help, check out the organisations below, and get involved.

BirdLife, an international partnership for nature conservation with more than 115 national partners

RSPB, based in the UK, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds has 1 million+ members

American Bird Conservancy, a non-profit working to conserve wild birds throughout the Americas

Kaua’i Forest Bird Recovery Project, a project of the Pacific Cooperative Studies Unit of the University of Hawai’i in association with Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR), Division of Forestry and Wildlife (DOFAW)