Bird indicators

The latest updates of the UK and England bird indicators based on population trends of wild birds were published on 8 November 2018. These indicators are part of the government’s suite of biodiversity indicators and show how the fortunes of birds of farmland, woodland, waterways and wetlands, and marine and coastal areas have fared between 1970 and 2017. Read on for information on the latest update to the Scottish Terrestrial Breeding Indicator at the bottom of this page (Nov 2018).

These indicators are calculated annually by the BTO and RSPB for Defra, and are based almost entirely on data collected by volunteers contributing to national bird monitoring schemes such as the Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) and the Wetland Bird Survey (WeBS). Population trends of common birds that are native to, and breed in, the UK are assessed using two assessment periods: the long-term (for most species between 1970 and 2017) and the short-term (2011-16). The wintering bird indicator shows how the internationally-important numbers of wintering waders, wildfowl and other waterbirds using our coasts and in wetlands have changed since ca. 1975. The bird indicators are part of the government’s suite of biodiversity indicators and show how the fortunes of birds associated with different landscapes have fared.

The full wild bird indicators document is now available for the UK as a whole and England alone from Defra.

Figure 1. Changes in the abundance of breeding birds of woodland, farmland, water and wetlands and all-species in the UK
Source: BTO, Defra, JNCC, RSPB.

Key messages

  • The breeding farmland bird index continued to fall and has declined by more than half between 1970 and 2017 in the UK. Whilst most of these declines occurred in the late 1970s and early 1980s, there was a short-term decline of 7% since 2011. Farmland specialists showed the most prominent declines; for example, Corn Bunting, Grey Partridge, Turtle Dove and Tree Sparrow all declined by at least 90% since 1970. Grey Partridge and Turtle Dove also declined strongly in the short-term, but there was no change for Corn Bunting or Tree Sparrow during this time. Conversely, some farmland specialists (e.g. Stock Dove and Goldfinch) have more than doubled in the long-term. This illustrates that responses to pressures are likely to vary between species.

Figure 2. Changes in the abundance of woodland birds between 1970 and 2017 in the UK
Source: BTO, Defra, JNCC, RSPB.

  • The breeding woodland bird index for the UK has declined by 25% between 1970 and 2017, and 5% over the recent short-term period. These declines are greater than documented previously, driven by the declining numbers of woodland specialists; down 46% since 1970.  Generalist woodland species, typically those that also breed in gardens or wooded areas of farmland, have increased overall, by 14%. Woodland species such as Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, Spotted Flycatcher and Willow Tit have shown the most serious declines (more than 80%) since 1970, whilst numbers of Long-tailed Tit, Blackcap and Nuthatch have almost doubled, and the Great Spotted Woodpecker is three times as abundant as it was several decades ago.

Figure 3. Changes in the abundance of woodland birds between 1970 and 2017 in the UK
Source: BTO, Defra, JNCC, RSPB.

  • The breeding water and wetland bird index for the UK fell by 6% between 1975 and 2017, but over the short-term increased slightly by 3%. Over the long-term, species associated with slow-flowing and standing water, and with eedbeds, fared better than those associated with fast-flowing water or with wet grasslands. Lapwing, Redshank, Snipe and Common Sandpiper showed the strongest declines over the long-term, athough Snipe has shown a recovery of  27%in the recent short-term period.

Fig.4 The abundance of breeding water and wetland birds between 1975 and 2017 in the UK.
Source: BTO, Defra, JNCC, RSPB.

  • As with last year, the breeding seabird index has not been updated this year due to a shift of effort by the JNCC Seabird Monitoring team towards the ongoing Seabird Census. In the UK, the seabird index declined by 22% between 1986 and 2015. Declines began in the mid-2000s; and more recently, between 2009 and 2014 there was a 14% decline in the indicator, driven largely by large declines for Arctic Skua and Kittiwake.
  • The wintering waterbird index was 106% higher than in 1975/76 in the UK. The index peaked in the late 1990s, and has been declining since; by 4% between 2010/11 and 2015/16. Some wintering waterbirds have increased markedly over the long-term, including Gadwall, Whooper Swan, Avocet and Black-tailed Godwit. Conversely, White-fronted Goose, Eider, Ringed Plover and Dunlin have declined.

Fig.6 The abundance of wintering waterbirds between 1975 /76 and 2016/17 in the UK.
Source: BTO, Defra, JNCC, RSPB, WWT.

Update of Scottish Terrestrial Breeding Bird Indicator

The latest update of the indicator for Terrestrial Breeding Birds in Scotland was published on November 28 2018 by Scottish Natural Heritage. Produced by the BTO, this indicator is comprised of the population trends of 66 bird species monitored across Scotland over the period 1994 to 2017. Most data come from BBS undertaken by several hundred intrepid volunteer bird surveyors, but we also use information from the Waterways Breeding Bird Survey (WBBS) for riparian specialists and periodic national surveys for species such as Hen Harrier and Capercaillie.

Fig.6 Scottish Terrestrial Breeding Bird Indicator between 1994 and 2017.
Source: BTO, SNH.

Despite a slight upturn in the fortunes of most species since last reported (between 2016 and 2017), this update shows a continuing divergence in bird populations in woodland, farmland and upland habitats. More than 80% of woodland bird species have shown marked increases over this period, strongest in Chiffchaff, Blackcap and Great Spotted Woodpecker. The trend for farmland birds, unlike further south in England, is positive overall (+14%) but shows evidence of a decline over the past decade. This includes strong increases in species as diverse ecologically as Goldfinch, Great Tit, Corncrake and Whitethroat, as well as marked declines in Kestrel, Lapwing and Greenfinch.

The upland bird indicator shows a decline of almost 20%. Driven largely by continuing serious falls in numbers of breeding waders such as Curlew and Dotterel, ten of 17 upland bird species declined. In contrast, numbers of Red Grouse, Raven and Cuckoo have shown marked increases.

See the full report on the SNH website for further details and the BTO’s BirdTrends report pages for discussion of the likely causes of population change.

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