Wild Bird populations in the UK 1970-2011

6 Dec 2012
Fulmar by Jill Pakenham

The latest wild bird indicators, just published, show farmland birds are still declining, some woodland birds are declining whilst others increase, breeding water and wetland birds remain stable, whilst seabirds and wintering water birds remain well above 1970s levels, despite some recent declines.

  Populations of wild birds, 1970 to 2011

Figure 1:  Populations of wild birds, 1970 to 2011.

The wild bird indicators used by the government as an index of health in at least one important component of the UK’s biodiversity have just been updated using the most recently calculated population trends. Generated by the BTO and RSPB and largely based on bird monitoring schemes organised by the BTO through its extensive volunteer network, the annual update of the indicators provides a summary of the current status of birds on farmland, woodland, along waterways and wetlands, and those using the marine environment. The black line showing the average trend of all 122 species in the indicator is relatively flat demonstrating that when viewed together, the status of common native breeding bird species in the UK seems to have changed little compared with 40 years ago. This might appear at odds with recent reports of losses of more than 40 million birds but this is not the case. In the indicators, species are treated equally whatever their abundance, so that for example declines in many rare species are not over-shadowed by increases in common species. In fact, the net loss of over 40 million birds since the mid-1960s is itself a balance between almost 90 million lost (including almost 25 million Starlings and almost 20 million House Sparrows) and over 40 million gained (including over 8 million Wrens and over 7 million Woodpigeons).

As a group, farmland species have shown the most marked declines, with the largest decreases in farmland bird populations occurring between the late seventies and the early nineties. There has been little recent change in UK woodland bird populations (again, taken as a group), with the greatest decline occurring from the late eighties until the mid-nineties. In 2011 breeding water and wetland bird populations in the UK were at around the same level as they were in 1975, although there has been a decline of 14 per cent since 2000. Seabird populations in the UK have fallen by 12 per cent since a peak in 1999; however, they remain 27 per cent higher when data collection began in 1970.

  Populations of wintering waterbirds, 1975-6 to 2010-11

Figure 6:  Populations of wintering waterbirds, 1975-6 to 2010-11

Wintering waterbird populations in the UK

In the winter of 2010-11 the wintering waterbird index in the UK was 93 per cent higher than its 1975-6 level. The index peaked in the late nineties, and has declined since, with the smoothed index falling by 4 per cent between 2004-5 and 2009-10. There are 46 species of bird included in the wintering waterbird indicator. The populations of wildfowl and waders increased by 109% and 64% respectively since 1975-6. However, between 2004-5 and 2009-10 the smoothed indices for wildfowl and for waders showed declines of 3 per cent and 7 per cent respectively. Among wildfowl, European White-fronted Goose, Mallard, and Pochard populations have decreased since 1975-76 whereas Svalbard Light-bellied Brent Goose increased by almost 21 fold and Avocet multiplied by a factor of 41. Over the same period Ringed Plover, Purple Sandpiper, Dunlin, Redshank and Turnstone populations decreased relative to the winter of 1975-6.

Annex A: Bird species by habitat  group in the UK

Farmland (19)

Generalists (7)

Greenfinch

Rook

Reed Bunting

Jackdaw

Woodpigeon

Kestrel

Yellow Wagtail

Specialists (12)

Corn Bunting

Linnet

Tree Sparrow

Goldfinch

Skylark

Turtle Dove

Grey Partridge

Starling

Whitethroat

Lapwing

Stock Dove

Yellowhammer

Woodland (38)

Generalists (12)

Blackbird

Dunnock

Robin

Blue Tit

Great Tit

Song Thrush

Bullfinch

Lesser Whitethroat

Tawny Owl

Chaffinch

Long-tailed Tit

Wren

Specialists (26)

Blackcap

Hawfinch

Siskin

Capercaillie

Jay

Sparrowhawk

Chiffchaff

Lesser Redpoll

Spotted Flycatcher

Coal Tit

Lesser Spotted Woodpecker

Treecreeper

Crossbill

Marsh Tit

Tree Pipit

Garden Warbler

Nightingale

Willow Tit

Goldcrest

Nuthatch

Willow Warbler

Green Woodpecker

Pied Flycatcher

Wood Warbler

Great Spotted Woodpecker

Redstart

Water and wetland birds (26)

Fast-flowing (4)

Common Sandpiper

Grey Wagtail

Goosander

Dipper

Slow/Standing (6)

Coot

Mallard

Tufted Duck

Little Grebe

Moorhen

Great Crested Grebe

Reedbed (4)

Cetti's Warbler

Reed Warbler

Reed Bunting

Sedge Warbler

Wet Grasslands (8)

Mute Swan

Yellow Wagtail

Teal

Redshank

Curlew

Little Egret

Snipe

Lapwing

All species only

Oystercatcher

Grey Heron

Sand Martin

Kingfisher

Seabird (19)

Arctic Skua

European Shag

Mew Gull

Arctic Tern

Great Black-backed Gull

Northern Fulmar

Atlantic Puffin

Great Cormorant

Northern Gannet

Black-headed Gull

Great Skua

Razorbill

Black-legged kittiwake

Herring Gull

Sandwich Tern

Common Guillemot

Lesser Black-backed Gull

Common Tern

Little Tern

Wintering water birds (46)

Wildfowl (26)

Bewick's Swan

Mallard

Shoveler

Dark-bellied Brent Goose

Mute Swan

Svalbard Barnacle Goose

Eider

NW Scotland Greylag Goose

Svalbard Light-bellied Brent Goose

European White-fronted Goose

Pink-footed Goose

Teal

Gadwall

Pintail

Tufted Duck

Goldeneye

Pochard

Whooper Swan

Goosander

Red-breasted Merganser

Wigeon

Greenland White-fronted Goose

Scaup

Nearctic Barnacle Goose

Icelandic Greylag Goose

Shelduck

British/Irish Greylag Goose

Wader (15)

Avocet

Golden Plover

Purple Sandpiper

Bar-tailed Godwit

Grey Plover

Redshank

Black-tailed Godwit

Knot

Ringed Plover

Curlew

Lapwing

Sanderling

Dunlin

Oystercatcher

Turnstone

Other (4)

Coot

Great Crested Grebe

Little Grebe

Cormorant

The all-species line is comprised of all 122 available population trends for widespread breeding species in the UK, from all landscape types. It excludes rare species (with less than 500 breeding pairs) and all species for which no UK trend information is available. The species composition of all species index (122 species) includes:

  • 19 farmland* species trends (those in the farmland bird index)
  • 38 woodland bird species (those in the woodland bird index)
  • 26 breeding wetland* species (those in the breeding birds of waterways and wetlands index)
  • 19 seabirds
  • 23 other species trends, including birds of urban areas, heathlands, uplands, coasts and species with no strong habitat preferences (generalists).

Other Species (23)

Dartford Warbler

Red Grouse

Red-breasted Merganser

Woodlark

Meadow Pipit

Great Skua

Avocet

Mistle Thrush

Greylag Goose (naturalised)

Cirl Bunting

Pied Wagtail

Gadwall

Buzzard

Swallow

Hobby

Corncrake

Shelduck

Common Gull

Peregrine Falcon

Collared Dove

Cormorant

Cuckoo

Hen Harrier

* NOTES: Habitat classifications are generally based on ‘Gibbons, D.W., Reid, J.B. & Chapman, R.A. 1993. The New Atlas of Breeding Birds in Britain and Ireland: 1988-1991. London: T. & A.D. Poyser. Note that trends for three species (Yellow Wagtail, Reed Bunting and Lapwing) are included in two separate habitat-specific indicators (farmland and breeding wetland) due to their reliance on both of these habitats. However, only the farmland trend is used in the all-species indicator to avoid duplication.

Read the full report (PDF)