Hope for endangered British bird as head-started young fly the nest

30 Aug 2022 | No. 2022-34

The fortunes of 37 young Curlews, rescued as eggs from RAF airfields and reared in captivity, are being followed by scientists from the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO). These birds were released on the Norfolk coast over the last few weeks as part of an attempt to boost internationally important UK Curlew population. Thirty individuals have been fitted with tags that will allow BTO researchers to track them as they begin to make their way in the world. 

The UK is home to around 25% of the global Curlew population, but numbers here crashed by almost half between 1995 and 2018. Poor breeding success is responsible for much of this decline, but BTO has been working with colleagues from Natural England, Pensthorpe Conservation Trust, the RAF, WWT, the Sandringham Estate and Wild Ken Hill on an innovative project to support recovery of Curlew populations in Eastern England. Curlew eggs laid on RAF airfields would ordinarily be destroyed to mitigate risk to aircraft but, since last year, a number have been collected, incubated and the young raised in captivity. These ‘head-started’ birds are then released in ideal habitat along the Norfolk coast before they disperse further afield.

BTO scientists are responsible for fitting the young Curlew with a mixture of radio and GPS tags, and then tracking them after release. The first of this year’s tagged birds to migrate away from the Norfolk coast was released at the Sandringham Estate and departed at sunset (just like a wild-reared Curlew would) on 24 August, arriving on a Staffordshire field at sunrise the next day. It then flew towards Ireland and made a perilous trip out into the Atlantic before thinking better of it and returning to dry land close to Wexford. 

All the ‘head-started’ Curlew are also fitted with individually numbered bright-yellow ‘leg-flags’ that allow them to be identified from a distance. Anyone can help us keep track of what these brilliant birds are up to by reporting sightings at bit.ly/HS-curlew.

Dr Samantha Franks, BTO Senior Research Ecologist and Curlew conservation lead, said: ‘Watching young Curlews take flight in the wild for the first time is always a sign of hope for a species on the brink throughout lowland England. With so many tagged this year, following the fate of these birds as they explore their surroundings and undertake their first migration will provide crucial insights as to the success of headstarting as a Curlew conservation tool. Next spring will prove the litmus test as BTO undertakes surveys to see if released birds return to breed near the release area.'

Contact Details
Tom Stewart
 (BTO Media Manager)
Mobile: 07585 440910
Email: press [at] bto.org (subject: News%20release%20enquiry)

Mike Toms (Head of Communications)
Mobile 07850 500791
Email: press [at] bto.org (subject: News%20release%20enquiry)

Images are available for use alongside this News Release. These can be downloaded from this link for which you will need to enter the password Curlew2022. Alternatively, please contact press [at] bto.org quoting reference 2022-34.

BTO is the UK's leading bird research charity. A growing membership and up to 60,000 volunteer birdwatchers contribute to BTO's surveys, collecting information that underpins conservation action in the UK. BTO maintains a staff of 100 at its offices in Thetford, Stirling, Bangor (Wales) and Belfast (Northern Ireland), who analyse and publicise the results of surveys and projects. BTO's work is funded by BTO supporters, government, trusts, industry and conservation organisations. www.bto.org

This work is part of the England Species Reintroduction Taskforce, led by Natural England, to deliver a more ambitious approach to reintroducing species or helping their populations recover.

The Curlew is a Red-listed species in the UK. For information about BTO's upcoming book Into the Red (Oct. 2022), a collection of work from 70 artists and 70 writers created to raise funds for the conservation of Red-listed species, contact Mike Toms at mike.toms [at] bto.org. More information can be found on BTO's Into the Red publication page

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