Roadside raptor takes a downward turn

No.:  2010-07-34
July 2010

Issued by BTO, on behalf of BTO, JNCC and RSPB

The Kestrel, one of our most familiar birds of prey, has shown a significant decline in numbers, according to a report published today.

Kestrel by Edmund Fellowes 

The Kestrel is not the only bird of prey
to be experiencing declines.

Often seen hovering over motorway verges on the look-out for small rodents, the Kestrel is one of our most well-known birds of prey. However, all is not well with this roadside hunter. The latest Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) report reveals a significant -20% drop in the Kestrel population between 1995 and 2008, and a further fall of -36% between 2008 and 2009. Kestrel declines between the 70s and 90s have been linked to agricultural intensification on farmland habitats and the adverse effects this has had on populations of small mammals, but the reasons for more recent declines are not clear. The Kestrel is one of thirty-six amber-listed birds out of 106 species monitored by the Breeding Bird Survey, a partnership between the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB).

The Kestrel isn’t the only bird of prey to be experiencing declines. Sparrowhawks suffered a severe population crash in the 1950s and 1960s, caused by organochlorine pesticides, when the species was lost from large areas of lowland Britain. Following a ban on the use of organochlorines, the species increased and spread until the early nineties, when the population again began to fall. This latest report highlights a significant decline of -7% between 1995 and 2008, and a further fall of -18% between 2008 and 2009.

However, it’s not all bad news for birds of prey. Numbers of Buzzards and Red Kites continue to rise. And the Hobby, a migrant falcon, has increased by 23% since the start of the survey, and is continuing its upward trend with a 21% increase between 2008 and 2009. The success of the Hobby could be linked to the increasing range of many dragonfly species, one of its main prey items, allowing a northward spread in the Hobby’s distribution.

Kate Risely, BBS organiser at the BTO, commented, “It is a testament to the dedication of BBS volunteers that we are able to produce trends for over one hundred species of British birds, the results of which are widely used to set conservation priorities. Without this dedication we would know much less about the fortunes of our breeding birds; the fact that we know that Kestrel numbers are falling, or that the Hobby is doing well, is down to them”.

Biological monitoring at such a large scale and of such high quality as implemented in the BBS would be prohibitively expensive without the input of an army of highly skilled volunteers” said Dr Ian Mitchell, Senior Monitoring Ecologist with the JNCC – the UK Government’s adviser on nature conservation and co-funders of the BBS. “We are working closely with the BTO to ensure that the information obtained from the BBS is used as extensively as possible to inform policy and action related to land-management and climate change”.

Dr Mark Avery, the RSPB’s Conservation Director, said, “We are very worried that government spending cuts will affect the funding of the Breeding Birds Survey but also of conservation measures that would improve the fortunes of many declining species. Cuts to agri-environment funding will mean that farmland bird numbers, as measured by the BBS, will remain at low levels.”

A number of small-bodied resident birds declined significantly between 2008 and 2009, presumably due to the prolonged freezing temperatures in January and February 2009. Goldcrest and Long-tailed Tit, which in 2008 both reached their highest numbers since the start of the survey, declined by -56% and -12% respectively between 2008 and 2009. Significant declines were also shown by Stonechat (-38%), Treecreeper (-27%), Great Tit (-5%) and Blue Tit (-4%). We await the result from current breeding season to see how many of these birds managed to survive the more severe conditions during the last winter.

Notes for Editors 

  1. For a pdf of the full report visit www.bto.org/bbs/results/BBSreport09.pdf
  2. 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 statutory nature conservation agencies: Council for Nature Conservation and the Countryside, the Countryside Council for Wales, Natural England and Scottish Natural Heritage), and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB).
  3. The BTO/JNCC/RSPB Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) is a national project aimed at keeping track of changes in the breeding populations of widespread bird species in the UK. The BBS involves over 2,500 participants who now survey more than 3,200 sites across the UK, enabling us to monitor the population changes of over 100 bird species. Knowing to what extent bird populations are increasing or decreasing is fundamental to bird conservation.
  4. The information provided by the BBS provides a cornerstone for conservation action for birds in the UK. This survey forms an integral part of the Government’s Quality of Life indicators.
  5. 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.
  6. 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 Norfolk and Stirling, who analyse and publicise the results of project work. The BTO’s investigations are funded by government, industry and conservation organisations.
  7. The Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) is the statutory adviser to Government on UK and international nature conservation, on behalf of the Council for Nature Conservation and the Countryside, the Countryside Council for Wales, Natural England and Scottish Natural Heritage. Its work contributes to maintaining and enriching biological diversity, conserving geological features and sustaining natural systems. Website: www.jncc.gov.uk

Contact information 

Kate Risely (Breeding Bird Survey Organiser)
Office: 01842 750050
Email: bbs [at] bto.org

Paul Stancliffe (BTO Press Officer)
Office: 01842 750050 (9am to 5.30pm)
Mobile: 07845 900559 (anytime)
Email: press [at] bto.org

Grahame Madge (RSPB Press Officer)
Office: 01767 681577 (Office Hours)
Mobile: 07702 196902 (anytime)

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