A new peer-reviewed study by scientists from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) and British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) argues that we must act now to stop the long-term decline of birds that migrate between Europe and Africa. After decades of research into the causes of population declines, our understanding remains incomplete due to the complexities of studying species on an inter-continental scale throughout the year, and this is delaying conservation action.
Ongoing declines in species such as European Turtle Dove are a warning that time is running out to save the migratory bird species travelling to Ireland and Britain. Resident birds like Curlew, Lapwing, Snipe, Kestrel, and Skylark are the fastest declining subset of species, with upland birds and lowland wetland species also faring poorly.
New tracking technologies have provided further information on the migratory behaviour and routes of migrant birds. However, we still don’t understand what is driving the decline of most of these species. Although there have been significant advances in priority research areas, these have not led to new conservation approaches.
Birds that leave Europe after the breeding season to spend the winter in Africa have seen their numbers drop by more than 25% since 1980, with many species experiencing significantly worse declines. The reasons remain unclear, partly because the birds cover huge distances, depend on different sites at different times of the year, and occupy vast wintering ranges. These factors make it challenging to identify the pressures faced by individual species and to establish whether poor levels of breeding success or low adult survival rates are to blame for the declines.
Dr John Mallord, RSPB Senior Conservation Scientist, added: “Although we have learnt a lot about migrant birds in the past seven years, we are still no closer to understanding what is driving the declines of most of these species. We need to shift the focus from species-specific diagnostic research and start to use what we do already know to inform conservation actions on the ground.”
The Birds of Conservation Concern in Ireland assessment published by BirdWatch Ireland and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in Northern Ireland in 2021 showed that 25% of Ireland’s regularly occurring bird species are in severe decline, with an additional 37% showing moderate declines. In total, 63% of Ireland’s bird species are in serious trouble, illustrating the plight of both resident and migrant species.
The new study published in Ibis calls for action to improve wintering and breeding habitats across Europe and Africa. Examples include planting and conserving native trees in those regions of Africa that hold wintering migrants. Targeted measures at significant stopover locations on migration routes and protecting some species from hunting along the full course of their migration routes to mitigate those measures.