Scotland's warblers doing well

07 Jul 2016 | No. 2016-26

In the latest Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) report – released today – Chiffchaff, Blackcap and Whitethroat show large, long-term population increases in Scotland. However, the reasons behind these increases vary between species.

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Chiffchaffs are found in Scotland's lowlands and islands. They have increased in the UK as a whole by 96% between 1995 and 2014, but this figure is overshadowed by the huge 550% increase seen in Scotland during the same period. The Blackcap has also increased greatly in Scotland, by 465% between 1995 and 2014. Both of these migratory species have spread northwards and might be benefiting from a warming climate. The Blackcap has also changed its migration pattern in response, evidence indicates, to people feeding birds in their gardens, which is thought to increase survival.

The Whitethroat has undergone an increase of 113% since 1994 in Scotland and has increased in the UK as a whole (33%) – consequently moving from the amber to green list in ‘Birds of Conservation Concern’, the periodic objective assessment of our bird species’ conservation status, which shows a growing number of red-listed species overall. These Whitethroat figures somewhat mask the bigger picture: in the 1968–69 winter, Whitethoat populations crashed after severe droughts in their wintering grounds south of the Sahara. The BBS trend therefore illustrates the recovery from this crash but does not yet wholly compensate for the losses seen in the late 1960s.


Not all birds are showing such positive signs in Scotland, with waders amongst those species which continue to show significant losses. The latest figures reveal long-term declines in Oystercatcher by 33%, Golden Plover by 25% and both Curlew and Lapwing by 57% between 1995 and 2014. The rapid decline of the Curlew in Scotland and across the UK is a major concern, given that the UK has a huge global responsibility for this species, supporting approximately one quarter of its world population.

Sarah Harris, BBS Organiser at the British Trust for Ornithology, said “Climate change will impact species differently and it is interesting to see that some species such as Blackcap and Chiffchaff are expanding their range in response and are thought to be adapting to the changing conditions.Populations of Garden and Grasshopper Warblers are also thought to be changing, but we will need to increase survey coverage of these species before we can produce robust annual trends for Scotland.Scotland contains many remote and upland areas and this creates challenges for expanding BBS coverage. We are therefore incredibly grateful to the volunteers of Scotland who enable trends to be calculated for an impressive 62 species in the country.”

Andy Douse, Policy & Advice Manager, Ornithology, Scottish Natural Heritage, said “The contrasting fortunes of some of Scotland’s common birds are clearly demonstrated by the latest findings of the UK–wide Breeding Bird Survey (BBS).  Substantial increases in some of our common warblers are welcome, and climate change may partly explain some of these changes, both here and on their wintering grounds.  However the continuing declines of our common wading birds on their breeding grounds is a continuing source of concern, and though climate change may be implicated, the reasons behind these changes are not well understood. Scotland holds significant proportions of the European populations of these breeding waders and has a particular responsibility for their conservation, acting in tandem with our European partners.”
Jeremy Wilson, Head of Conservation Science at RSPB Scotland, said: “The Breeding Bird Survey continues to be a crucial barometer of the state of nature in Scotland, and a testament to the skill and commitment of the hundreds of volunteers visiting survey squares across the country.  Rising populations of warblers and some other songbird species are encouraging.  However, the rapid decline of many wader species, including our internationally important population of Curlew, is of great concern, and we must not forget that some species such as Corn Bunting and Grey Partridge have declined so severely that they may become too rare for their populations to be monitored effectively by the BBS.” 

Notes for Editors

  1. Warblers are small songbirds which feed predominantly on insects and are most usually seen busily flitting around foliage searching for food during the spring and summer months.
  2. The BBS is the main scheme for monitoring the population changes of common breeding birds in the UK and its constituent countries, using counts made by volunteer birdwatchers. Population trends for 62 bird species in Scotland have been calculated in the latest BTO/JNCC/RSPB Breeding Bird Survey annual report.
  3. In 2015, 473 BBS squares were surveyed in Scotland. We are grateful to Scottish Natural Heritage, Scottish Ornithologists’ Club and many other partners who have supported us in engaging more volunteers via the What’s Up? upland monitoring initiative (see
  4. The latest BBS report can be found at:
  5. The Breeding Bird Survey is run by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) and is jointly funded by BTO, the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) (on behalf of the Council for Nature Conservation and the Countryside, Natural England, Natural Resources Wales and Scottish Natural Heritage), and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB).
  6. The BTO/JNCC/RSPB Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) is a UK-wide project aimed at keeping track of changes in the breeding populations of widespread bird species. The BBS involves around 2,700 participants who survey more than 3,700 sites across the UK, enabling us to monitor the population changes of over 110 bird species. Knowing to what extent bird populations are increasing or decreasing is fundamental to bird conservation.
  7. This important survey is carried out by volunteer birdwatchers throughout the UK, who receive no financial reward or expenses for their efforts. We are indebted to them for their tremendous support.
  8. The BTO is the UK's leading bird research organisation. Over thirty thousand birdwatchers contribute to the BTO's surveys. They collect information that forms the basis of conservation action in the UK. The BTO maintains a staff of 100 at its offices in Thetford, Stirling, Bangor (Wales) and Bangor (Northern Ireland), who analyse and publicise the results of project work. The BTO's investigations are funded by government, industry and conservation organisations.

Contact Details

Sarah Harris
(Breeding Bird Survey Organiser, BTO)

Office: 01842 750050
(9am to 5.30pm)
Email: sarah.harris [at]
Paul Stancliffe
(BTO Media Manager)

Office: 01842 750050
(9am to 5.30pm)
Mobile: 07585 440910 (anytime)
Email: press [at]
Ben Darvill
(BTO Scotland)

Office: 01786 466562
(9am to 5.30pm)
Email: ben.darvill [at]
Louise Cullen
Media Executive, RSPB Scotland

Office: 0131 317 4136
Email: louise.cullen [at]
Dr. Fergus Macneill
(Scottish Natural Heritage, Media and Communications)

Office: 01463 725021 or 07909 621126

Images are available for use alongside this News Release. Please contact images [at] quoting reference 2016-July-26
The BTO has an ISDN line available for radio interviews. Please contact us to book an interview Office:01842 750050

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