Latest long-term alerts

A standardised system for setting 'alerts' in this report has been agreed between the providers and users of population monitoring information in the UK. Alerts are raised by population declines of 25–50% and of >50% over short, medium and longer terms (five years, ten years and 25+ years respectively) and noted in the 'Alert' column in the population change and demography tables. These help to highlight the scale and timing of declines, and act as an aid to interpreting the trend graphs presented.

These alerts are important for conservation practitioners who need to set priorities for conservation action, but we hope that they will also interest readers of the report more generally. Similar Alerts for wetland birds are provided by the Wetland Bird Survey (Woodward et al. 2019).

Our main emphasis in this section is on long-term declines measured over the longest period available (usually 51 years) and over 25 years, which is one of the periods used to determine 'Birds of Conservation Concern' red and amber listing for the UK (Eaton et al. 2015).

Alerts triggered over the short term should be considered as early warnings, indicating that conservation issues may be developing for the species concerned. Some short-term declines might stem, however, from normal fluctuations in abundance, from which the population is able to recover without assistance. The steep decline of a suite of species of similar ecology should be considered as a stronger indication that potential problems may be developing (see the Species Groups section of this report). Details of the methodology used to raise alerts are given in the Methods section.

Where this section discusses red-listed or amber-listed species, it uses the current version of these lists, introduced in December 2015 and abbreviated as BoCC4. The full paper (Eaton et al. 2015) details the criteria by which each listed species qualifies for its red or amber status and these criteria are also summarised on our species pages under 'Conservation listings' (see Key to species texts). Our tables here of red and amber species include only those that met the criteria (red or amber, respectively) for UK breeding population decline.

Long-term trends of 'Birds of Conservation Concern' red-listed species

The species considered in this section are red listed under BoCC4 wholly or partly because of severe UK population declines revealed by annual census data, amounting to more than 50% over the 25-year period 1987–2012, the 45-year period 1967–2012, or both. The latest long-term population changes and alerts for these severely declining species are shown in Table A1, over the maximum period available (usually the 51 years 1967–2018) and over 25 years (1993–2018). This table thus updates the figures that were used to produce the new BoCC4 red list, by six years.

The 24 species in Table A1 are listed in descending order of their longest-term percentage change. Turtle Dove remains the species with the strongest long-term UK decline (-98%). Tree Sparrow, which headed this table recently, has shown significant increases in numbers since 1995 and is now in second place, albeit still with a decline of 96% since 1967. The figures for Lesser Spotted Woodpecker are likely to be a very large underestimate of the current population change, because the species had by 1999 become too rare for further annual monitoring. Were recent data available, this species might easily surpass Turtle Dove and Tree Sparrow in the strength of its decline. Similarly, there is strong evidence that the decline for Woodcock has continued since it was last included in CBC/BBS monitoring.

Three other species, which are also red listed under BoCC4 because of severe UK population declines, are not included in Table A1 as long-term monitoring data are not available: Wood WarblerPied Flycatcher and Whinchat. Shorter monitoring histories from BBS show that Wood Warbler and Whinchat have both declined by more than 50% over 23 years (1995–2018), whilst Pied Flycatcher has declined by more than 25% but less than 50% over the same period.

Table A1 Latest trends for red-listed species

Species Period
Source Change
Alert Comment
Turtle Dove 51 CBC/BBS UK -98 -99 -97 >50  
Turtle Dove 25 CBC/BBS UK -95 -97 -94 >50  
Tree Sparrow 51 CBC/BBS England -96 -98 -92 >50  
Tree Sparrow 25 CBC/BBS England 26 -21 86    
Nightingale 51 CBC/BBS England -93 -98 -70 >50  
Nightingale 25 CBC/BBS England -61 -73 -34 >50  
Grey Partridge 51 CBC/BBS UK -92 -95 -90 >50  
Grey Partridge 25 CBC/BBS UK -65 -72 -60 >50  
Willow Tit 51 CBC/BBS UK -92 -96 -86 >50  
Willow Tit 25 CBC/BBS UK -84 -89 -78 >50  
Spotted Flycatcher 51 CBC/BBS UK -90 -93 -85 >50  
Spotted Flycatcher 25 CBC/BBS UK -54 -64 -44 >50  
Starling 51 CBC/BBS England -89 -93 -85 >50  
Starling 25 CBC/BBS England -68 -72 -65 >50  
Lesser Redpoll 51 CBC/BBS England -89 -96 -72 >50  
Lesser Redpoll 25 CBC/BBS England -57 -83 -22 >50  
Tree Pipit 51 CBC/BBS England -88 -95 -78 >50  
Tree Pipit 25 CBC/BBS England -69 -81 -51 >50  
Corn Bunting 51 CBC/BBS UK -86 -93 -76 >50  
Corn Bunting 25 CBC/BBS UK -39 -53 -23 >25  
Cuckoo 51 CBC/BBS England -78 -83 -70 >50  
Cuckoo 25 CBC/BBS England -72 -76 -69 >50  
Marsh Tit 51 CBC/BBS UK -78 -86 -71 >50  
Marsh Tit 25 CBC/BBS UK -46 -55 -35 >25  
Woodcock 31 CBC to 1999 -74 -88 -49 >50 Small sample
Woodcock 25 CBC to 1999 -76 -88 -51 >50 Small sample
Yellow Wagtail 51 CBC/BBS UK -72 -85 -47 >50  
Yellow Wagtail 25 CBC/BBS UK -42 -57 -28 >25  
Linnet 51 CBC/BBS England -72 -80 -64 >50  
Linnet 25 CBC/BBS England -18 -25 -10    
House Sparrow 41 CBC/BBS England -69 -79 -59 >50  
House Sparrow 25 CBC/BBS England -15 -25 -5    
Skylark 51 CBC/BBS England -63 -70 -56 >50  
Skylark 25 CBC/BBS England -27 -31 -22 >25  
Yellowhammer 51 CBC/BBS UK -61 -69 -51 >50  
Yellowhammer 25 CBC/BBS UK -34 -38 -29 >25  
Lesser Spotted Woodpecker 31 CBC to 1999 -60 -81 40   Small sample
Lesser Spotted Woodpecker 25 CBC to 1999 -73 -86 -31 >50 Small sample
Mistle Thrush 51 CBC/BBS UK -57 -66 -47 >50  
Mistle Thrush 25 CBC/BBS UK -36 -41 -29 >25  
Lapwing 51 CBC/BBS UK -55 -76 -29 >50  
Lapwing 25 CBC/BBS UK -38 -46 -29 >25  
Song Thrush 51 CBC/BBS UK -49 -56 -40 >25  
Song Thrush 25 CBC/BBS UK 27 21 35    
Grey Wagtail 43 WBS/WBBS waterways -45 -58 -28 >25  
Grey Wagtail 25 WBS/WBBS waterways -5 -20 14    
Curlew 51 CBC/BBS England -38 -77 1    
Curlew 25 CBC/BBS England -23 -34 -10    

For Song Thrush and Grey Wagtail, the populations have increased over the last five years, so the long-term decline is now less than 50%, prompting a lower level alert; and the 25-year decline is now less than 25% for both species so no longer triggers an alert. These species were on the red list under BoCC4. Based on current figures they could potentially be changed to amber when the list is next reviewed. 

For 11 other species – LapwingMarsh Tit, Skylark, Mistle ThrushHouse Sparrow, Tree Sparrow, Yellow Wagtail,  Linnet, Corn Bunting and Yellowhammer (listed in taxonomic order) – the 25-year change is now less than 50%, indicating that, while these species meet red-list criteria for long-term change, their rate of decline in more recent years has been slower than for most other red-listed birds, although their populations are still at a much lower level than in the 1960s. For Grey Wagtail and Tree Sparrow, the 25-year trend is effectively stable, and Song Thrush numbers have increased slightly. Although Curlew is red-listed for its UK breeding population decline, its long-term CBC/BBS trends do not currently meet the >50% criterion; the key information for red-listing comes from other surveys.

Long-term trends of declining amber-listed species

There are 25 amber-listed species under BoCC4 that are included in this report, of which about half (13 species) are listed because of UK population declines over the periods 1987–2012 or 1967–2012. Long-term trends are available from annual census data for 12 of these species (all except Swift); their trends are listed in Table A2 in descending order of longest-term percentage change (normally over the 51 years 1967–2018). A 25-year change (1993–2018) is also shown.

Table A2 Latest trends for declining amber-listed species

Species Period
Source Change
Alert Comment
House Martin 51 CBC/BBS England -75 -94 -9 >50  
House Martin 25 CBC/BBS England -45 -57 -26 >25  
Redshank 43 WBS/WBBS waterways -70 -93 -47 >50  
Redshank 25 WBS/WBBS waterways -66 -85 -45 >50  
Willow Warbler 51 CBC/BBS England -67 -76 -54 >50  
Willow Warbler 25 CBC/BBS England -41 -47 -34 >25  
Meadow Pipit 51 CBC/BBS England -52 -78 -22 >50  
Meadow Pipit 25 CBC/BBS England -36 -46 -25 >25  
Common Sandpiper 43 WBS/WBBS waterways -49 -61 -36 >25  
Common Sandpiper 25 WBS/WBBS waterways -40 -49 -28 >25  
Dunnock 51 CBC/BBS UK -36 -45 -28 >25  
Dunnock 25 CBC/BBS UK 19 12 26    
Bullfinch 51 CBC/BBS UK -36 -48 -20 >25  
Bullfinch 25 CBC/BBS UK 17 5 27    
Dipper 43 WBS/WBBS waterways -30 -47 -1 >25  
Dipper 25 WBS/WBBS waterways -13 -30 12    
Tawny Owl 51 CBC/BBS UK -23 -47 18    
Tawny Owl 25 CBC/BBS UK -32 -45 -13 >25  
Kestrel 51 CBC/BBS England -17 -42 33    
Kestrel 25 CBC/BBS England -24 -32 -15    
Reed Bunting 51 CBC/BBS UK -15 -36 10    
Reed Bunting 25 CBC/BBS UK 21 7 39    
Shelduck 31 CBC to 1999 300 94 787   Small sample
Shelduck 25 CBC to 1999 12 -40 118    

Four amber-listed species raise high alerts, having shown significant declines of greater than 50%, and so potentially are red-list candidates:

  • Redshank has declined steeply in lowland Britain, according to waterways surveys (see below), raising high alerts; a major decline is also documented for its breeding sites on saltmarsh, and BBS data show that declines have occurred recently across a wide range of habitats. BBS declines do not yet meet the red-list criterion, however.
  • The English House Martin population meets the red-list criterion for long-term population decline measured by CBC/BBS trends (over 51-years), although BBS shows that numbers in Scotland and Northern Ireland have increased over 23 years (the longest trend available for this species in those countries), and consequently the decline in the UK as a whole since 1995 does not raise an alert.
  • English Willow Warblers also meet the red-list criterion for long-term population decline (over 51-years), but there has been little change in Wales and the overall change in Scotland and Northern Ireland since 1995 has been upward.
  • The English Meadow Pipit population also meets the red-list criterion over the long-term period (51-years), although there has been little change over 23 years (since 1995) in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland.

Although it is not included in Table A2 as no long-term trend is available, the shorter length trend from BBS (1995–2018) shows that a significant decline of greater than 50% has also occurred for Swift over 23 years.

​Five other species raise only the lower level of alert. Common Sandpiper meets the 25% criterion (equivalent to amber listing) in both the 25-year and the 51-year periods. Populations of DipperDunnock and Bullfinch have been recovering and show increasing trends over the shorter, 25-year period. Tawny Owl raises an alert over the 25-year period but does not do so over the longer 51-year period. Though amber listed for population decline, ShelduckKestrel and Reed Bunting do not formally raise alerts on the present data (note that in the case of Shelduck long-term CBC/BBS trends cannot be produced and the data presented here are for the 31-year period to 1999). 

Long-term declines of species that are not currently red or amber listed (for declines)

This section of the report draws attention to declines which currently surpass red or amber criteria but which were not recognised in the BoCC4 listings (Table A3). These species may be candidates for conservation listing (for declines) at the next review.

Table A3 Long-term trends for declining species not on the red or amber list (for declines)

Species Period
Source Change
Alert Comment
Snipe 43 WBS/WBBS waterways -89 -99 -49 >50 Small sample
Snipe 25 WBS/WBBS waterways -62 -96 24   Small sample
Little Owl 51 CBC/BBS UK -75 -85 -62 >50  
Little Owl 25 CBC/BBS UK -62 -70 -50 >50  
Greenfinch 51 CBC/BBS UK -65 -72 -56 >50  
Greenfinch 25 CBC/BBS UK -62 -65 -59 >50  
Whitethroat 51 CBC/BBS UK -63 -74 -49 >50  
Little Grebe 43 WBS/WBBS waterways -51 -78 12    
Little Grebe 25 WBS/WBBS waterways -33 -63 17    
Tufted Duck 25 WBS/WBBS waterways -41 -64 5    
Sedge Warbler 51 CBC/BBS UK -39 -67 -15 >25  
Sparrowhawk 25 CBC/BBS England -36 -44 -26 >25  
Oystercatcher 25 WBS/WBBS waterways -30 -43 -8 >25  
Garden Warbler 51 CBC/BBS UK -27 -48 16    

The WBS/WBBS trend for Snipe is based now on a very small sample of plots, the species having deserted so many of its former riverside haunts. It is currently amber-listed because its UK breeding range has contracted sharply, especially in lowland England, and not for UK population decline. BBS data do not show any decline at the UK scale over the longest period covered by this survey (23 years).

Little Owl meets red-list criteria for population decline but, as a species introduced to the UK, is not eligible for any conservation listing.  Whitethroat also raises a high alert over the long term, but the species is currently in recovery from its sudden losses in the late 1960s and therefore does not warrant a conservation listing. WBS/WBBS also indicates a possible strong decline for Little Grebe over both the 43-year and 25-year timescales, although, due to wide confidence intervals, it does not raise a formal alert in this report.

Greenfinch and Sedge Warbler are currently green listed, yet have both decreased by more than 25% over 51-years, raising alerts. In the case of Greenfinch, this decline is over 50% and so raises a higher alert, which also applies to the 25-year period, and is the result of a substantial population decline since 2006. A recent assessment of UK species which applied IUCN criteria and categories to UK populations rated Greenfinch as 'Endangered' (Stanbury et al. 2017). Another green listed species, Sparrowhawk, raises an alert having declined by more than 25% over 25-years, as does Oystercatcher, whose current amber listing does not result from population declines.  

Potential declines of >25% have also occurred for Little Grebe over both 43-year and 25-year periods, and for both Tufted Duck and Garden Warbler over the 25-year period, for these estimates have wide confidence intervals and are not statistically significant, so do not formally raise an alert. For Little Grebe, the potential 43-year decline from WBS/WBBS is > 50%. However, small waterbodies are not well-covered by WBBS and relative stability on BBS squares casts doubt upon the true nature of this species' population trend.

Declines along linear waterways

The Waterways Bird Survey and Waterways Breeding Bird Survey supplement the results from CBC and BBS, which include all habitat types, by measuring trends in bird populations alongside rivers and canals (which are not well represented in the main survey). Joint WBS/WBBS trends allow trend assessments to be continuous since 1974 for up to 25 species that were covered by WBS. WBBS, ongoing since 1998, includes all bird species but trends are presented here only for waterway-specialist species, for which joint WBS/WBBS trends are available.

For 13 species that are abundant in waterway habitats, WBS/WBBS provides the headline population trend for this report, generally because sample sizes exceed those from CBC/BBS. These species include one that is red-listed (Grey Wagtail), seven amber-listed species (Greylag Goose, Oystercatcher, Common Sandpiper, Redshank, Snipe, Kingfisher and Dipper) and four green-listed species Tufted Duck, Goosander, Little Grebe and Sand Martin), along with Canada Goose, which, as a non-native species in the UK, is excluded from the BoCC4 listings.

For six of the WBS/WBBS headline species that are in decline (Oystercatcher, Common Sandpiper, Redshank, SnipeDipper and Grey Wagtail), latest trends appear also in Tables A1, A2 or A3, as appropriate. One other species (Tufted Duck) appears in Table A3 as a result of potential declines (of >25%, but not statistically significant). Even where WBS/WBBS is not the headline trend for a species, however, the waterways data provide valuable supplementary information from these sensitive habitats.

Table A4 lists all statistically significant declines of greater than 25% recorded from the full period of waterway monitoring (normally 43 years, 1975–2018).

Table A4 Population declines of greater than 25% recorded by the joint Waterways Bird Survey/Waterways Breeding Bird Survey (WBS/WBBS) between 1975 and 2018

Species Period
Source Change
Alert Comment
Yellow Wagtail 43 WBS/WBBS waterways -97 -99 -95 >50  
Snipe 43 WBS/WBBS waterways -89 -99 -49 >50 Small sample
Redshank 43 WBS/WBBS waterways -70 -93 -47 >50  
Pied Wagtail 43 WBS/WBBS waterways -70 -79 -62 >50  
Sedge Warbler 43 WBS/WBBS waterways -68 -82 -49 >50  
Reed Bunting 43 WBS/WBBS waterways -68 -77 -54 >50  
Lapwing 38 WBS/WBBS waterways -58 -77 -21 >50  
Common Sandpiper 43 WBS/WBBS waterways -49 -61 -36 >25  
Grey Wagtail 43 WBS/WBBS waterways -45 -58 -28 >25  
Moorhen 43 WBS/WBBS waterways -35 -52 -15 >25  
Dipper 43 WBS/WBBS waterways -30 -47 -1 >25  

Six species are included here for which the WBS/WBBS trend is not the headline one and so is not listed in Tables A1–A3. These species are discussed briefly below. The trends for Yellow Wagtail and  Sedge Warbler are consistent in direction with the 51-year trends reported from CBC/BBS, but the declines on waterways have been more severe. The CBC/BBS trend for Reed Bunting is not statistically significant, but shows a substantial increase in the first eight years until the mid-1970s followed by a substantial decline in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and therefore would be consistent with WBS/WBBS if both trends had started in 1975. The Pied Wagtail declines along waterways are particularly intriguing because they contrast markedly with the fluctuating but generally upward trend, in more terrestrial habitats, as measured by CBC/BBS.

In the early 1980s, population increases for Lapwing reported by WBS/WBBS contrasted sharply with decline on CBC/BBS sites but long-term trends from both schemes show there has been a steep decline. It is possible that the initial WBS/WBBS increases may have been caused by redistribution of breeding birds into wetland areas during the early stages of the decline.  Moorhen numbers have dipped sharply by all measures over the last ten years, perhaps through extra mortality in cold winters, and its long-term WBS/WBBS change has tipped over the alert threshold.

Alerts raised by WBS/WBBS, and long-term increases detected by that index, are tabulated in WBS/WBBS alerts and population increases. A full set of this year's WBS/WBBS trends can be obtained from the Table generator.

Declines on CES plots

The Constant Effort Sites Scheme provides trends from standardised ringing in scrub and wetland habitats. It is possibly our best scheme for monitoring some bird populations inhabiting reed beds, but its main objective is to collect integrated data on relative abundance, productivity and survival for a suite of species. The longest trends currently available from the CES cover a period of 34 years (Table A5).

Table A5 Population declines of greater than 25% recorded by the Constant Effort Sites scheme between 1984 and 2018

Species Period
Source Change
Alert Comment
Willow Warbler 34 CES adults -77 -82 -71 >50  
Willow Warbler 25 CES adults -64 -71 -58 >50  
Willow Tit 34 CES adults -77 -90 -60 >50 Small sample
Willow Tit 25 CES adults -72 -87 -45 >50 Small sample
Greenfinch 25 CES adults -76 -84 -62 >50  
Lesser Whitethroat 34 CES adults -65 -81 -40 >50  
Lesser Whitethroat 25 CES adults -62 -76 -47 >50  
Reed Bunting 34 CES adults -65 -77 -51 >50  
Reed Bunting 25 CES adults -46 -61 -30 >25  
Sedge Warbler 34 CES adults -55 -68 -40 >50  
Sedge Warbler 25 CES adults -55 -61 -45 >50  
Chaffinch 34 CES adults -52 -72 -20 >50  
Chaffinch 25 CES adults -61 -70 -52 >50  
Whitethroat 34 CES adults -51 -68 -30 >50  
Whitethroat 25 CES adults -31 -47 -8 >25  
Reed Warbler 34 CES adults -29 -48 -4 >25  
Garden Warbler 25 CES adults -27 -41 -8 >25  

Most of the species that are declining on CES sites show broadly similar trends to those from CBC/BBS or WBS/WBBS data. Willow Tit is red listed on the strength of its long-term CBC/BBS declines (Table A1). Willow Warbler and Reed Bunting are similarly amber listed (Table A2). Greenfinch and Sedge Warbler are currently green listed but the long-term population trends now show a decline of >50% and >25% respectively (Table A3).

CES trends for Whitethroat, Reed Bunting and especially Lesser Whitethroat are considerably more negative than those from census data over similar periods, which may indicate habitat-specific differences in population status.

Chaffinch also raises a CES alert following several years of population decline. Recent BBS data also show a sharp decline but as this followed longer-term increases it has not yet triggered any BBS alerts.

A full set of alerts raised by CES and long-term increases are tabulated in CES alerts and population increases.


This report should be cited as: Woodward, I.D., Massimino, D., Hammond, M.J., Barber, L., Barimore, C., Harris, S.J., Leech, D.I., Noble, D.G., Walker, R.H., Baillie, S.R. & Robinson, R.A. (2020) BirdTrends 2020: trends in numbers, breeding success and survival for UK breeding birds. BTO Research Report 732. BTO, Thetford.