Where are all the Turtle Doves and Partridges?

18 Dec 2019 | No. 2019-40

The latest BirdTrends report from the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) shows a very mixed bag for our birds, with some showing marked increases and others in steep decline. The report summarises the efforts of many thousands of volunteers who participate in BTO’s Breeding Bird Survey (BBS), Ringing and Nest Record Schemes.

The longest-term information shows that 31 species have declined significantly by more than 50% over the past 20-50 years. At least half of these are farmland birds, but the list also includes specialists of upland, woodland and urban habitats. Only Bullfinch, Linnet and Tree Sparrow have shown any signs that their downward trend may be reversing over the last decade, although numbers remain far below those previously recorded.

Two species particularly associated with the well-known Christmas song are far less common than they used to be. The Turtle Dove’s demise is now almost total, showing a 98% decline over the same period. This is the largest decline of any UK species and suggests that this once familiar bird will soon disappear from the British countryside.  In the 1970s there were 10 Grey Partridges for each one recorded today.

Over the same period, 27 species show a significant doubling in numbers. This includes common garden birds like Wren and Great Spotted Woodpecker and generalists such as Carrion Crow and Magpie, as well as several widespread species of waterfowl and pigeons.

Birds such as the Red Kite have benefitted from direct conservation action; the Red Kite population increased by 1,624% between 1995-2017. The Nuthatch is another that is seeing not only population growth but is also enjoying a northward range expansion too. Formerly a rare bird in Scotland, the Nuthatch is now a common sight in many areas. Across the UK its population has grown by 268% in the last 50 years. Recent research by BTO indicates that Nuthatches are increasingly using garden feeders, which is likely to be contributing to their success. This shows the benefits of putting food out, at least for some species.

The report also includes data to help us understand why the number of our birds change. For example, many Robins did not survive the ‘Beast from the East’ in the spring of 2018 and numbers recorded in the summer were much lower. Climate warming, on the other hand, means many bird species are laying their eggs up to two weeks earlier and and in many cases are also breeding more successfully, based on information from our nest record and other demographic schemes. For prolific breeders, like the Wren, this helps populations recover from extreme weather events.

Dr Rob Robinson, co-author of the report, said, “Our wildlife populations are continually changing as a result of our choices about how to manage land. The dedication of BTO volunteers allows us understand those changes and help highlight where action needs to be taken.”

The BTO BirdTrends report is a one-stop shop for information about the population status for these and about 120 other common breeding birds of the wider UK countryside. To read the full report, please visit www.bto.org/birdtrends.

Contact Details
Paul Stancliffe
(BTO Media Manager)
Office: 01842 750050
(9am to 5:30pm Mon-Thurs), (9am to 5pm Friday)
Mobile: 07585440910
Email: press [at] bto.org ()

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Please contact images [at] bto.org quoting reference 2019 - 40

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Notes to editors
The BirdTrends report
is the result of a partnership between BTO and Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC).

Turtle Dove - The CBC/BBS trend shows severe declines in Turtle Dove abundance, beginning in the late 1970s and continuing steeply to the present. These trends, unless halted or reversed, would bring the species close to extinction in the UK within the next two decades. There are many factors that may be contributing the the decline that include widespread use of herbicides, a contraction of the breeding season, breeding habitat loss and hunting pressure on migration.

Grey Partridge - This native gamebird has declined enormously and, despite years of research and the application of a government biodiversity action plan, the continuing decline shown by CBC/BBS suggests that all efforts to boost the population in the wider countryside have so far been unsuccessful. Grey Partridge is one of the most strongly decreasing bird species in Europe with steep declines evident in all regions since 1980. The ultimate factor behind the decline of this species is the deterioration of the bird's agricultural habitat

Red Kite – The increase of Red Kite in the UK is attributed to a very successful reintroduction scheme which began in 1989. Red Kites can now be seen across most of the UK.


Nuthatch - Nuthatch abundance in the UK has increased rapidly since the mid 1970s There is little evidence relating to Nuthatch population change in the UK. However, studies from Europe provide evidence that mild winters are likely to have helped this species. Garden bird feeding in the UK may also be helping this species

Recent BTO research shows there has been a 40-year transformation of the bird communities using garden bird feeders in Britain, and provide evidence to suggest how this may have contributed to national-scale population changes. Urban areas of Britain are consequently nurturing growing populations of feeder-using bird species, while the populations of species that do not use feeders remain unchanged. Further detail can be found in Plummer et al. (2019) https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-019-10111-5

The BTO is the UK's leading bird research charity. A growing membership and up to 60,000 volunteer birdwatchers contribute to the BTO's surveys, collecting information that underpins 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 surveys and projects. The BTO's work is funded by BTO supporters, government, trusts, industry and conservation organisations.www.bto.org

JNCC is the public body that advises the UK Government and devolved administrations on UK-wide and international nature conservation. Originally established under the Environmental Protection Act 1990, we were reconstituted by the Natural Environment and Rural Communities (NERC) Act 2006. We are the forum through which the country nature conservation bodies in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland discharge their statutory responsibilities across the UK and internationally.