Spain’s mission to save the White-headed Duck
In the 1970s, the Spanish population of White-headed duck was brought to the verge of extinction. Its stunning recovery shows why Species Action Plans are essential for the survival of threatened species.
The beautiful White-headed duck Oxyura leucocephala is a compelling species. Keen birdwatchers are always eager to catch a glimpse of its distinctive blue bill or stiff tail. Its larger, eastern population in Asia is shrouded in mystery: the precise breeding and wintering grounds of tens of thousands of birds counted in Kazakhstan remains unknown. This population is also migratory, travelling long distances from Siberia to the Middle East, whereas the smaller western Mediterranean population resident in Spain, Algeria and Tunisia is more sedentary and far more closely studied. Sadly, what unites these populations is their IUCN listing as globally ‘Endangered’.
Back in the 1970s, the Spanish population of White-headed duck was brought to the verge of extinction following the severe destruction of its wetland habitats and unsustainable hunting. A count in 1977 recorded just 22 individuals, confined to a single lagoon in Córdoba, Andalucía. Conservationists sprang into action: hunting at the lagoon site was made illegal and habitat restoration measures were implemented, including vegetation regeneration and the removal of harmful non-native species. Slowly but surely, the species began to recover, progressively spreading first to the neighbouring provinces of Sevilla and Cádiz and then on to Almería and Toledo. By 1988, more than 400 birds could be counted and today that number has rocketed up to 2,500 individuals across 13 Spanish provinces.
The spectacular recovery of the White-headed duck in Spain is an inspiring example of what can be achieved by a well-coordinated Species Action Plan (SAP), grounded in science and supported by local authorities and community groups. But success in one country usually isn’t enough to turn things around for a whole species worldwide. That is why BirdLife has been leading the LIFE EuroSAP project with the goal of elaborating SAPs for sixteen iconic species on an international scale, spanning 65 countries and three continents. The White-headed duck, still Endangered globally, was selected to be one of the target species, with SEO/BirdLife Spain coordinating efforts to identify threats and conservation measures to feed into an updated international SAP.
Around its western range, illegal killing and lead poisoning (a knock-on effect from the legal hunting of other species in the same area) still threatens the White-headed duck’s recovery. This diving species is also particularly susceptible to getting entangled in fishing nets and drowning. But in Spain, one of the most pressing threats to the rare species’ long-term survival is hybridisation with other ducks from the same genus.
The White-headed duck is one of six stiff-tailed ducks (Oxyura deriving from the Ancient Greek oxus, ‘sharp’, and oura, ‘tail’) characterised by their small size, large blue bills and long tail feathers which stand pointedly when resting. One of these, the Ruddy Duck Oxyura jamaicensis – native to the Americas – started invading Spain in the 1980s, following its introduction to Britain where it escaped in the 1950s.
Since, in some cases, species from the same genus can interbreed, these alien invasions pose a very serious threat to native species. The response in Spain was very quick and the population was soon under control. International cooperation with agreed measures is the key to avoiding outbreaks and the control in Britain was key to stopping the invasion from spreading to the rest of Europe. And now a new project, LIFE Oxyura vs. Oxyura has been approved by the European Commission to support France in the international effort to preserve this species.
Jorge Fernández Orueta
International Cooperation Program, SEO/BirdLife Spain
 The LIFE EuroSAP project is funded by the European Commission out of the LIFE fund for environmental and climate action. The three year project, launched in 2015, is coordinated by BirdLife International in partnership with nine BirdLife partners – RSPB (UK), LPO (France), SEO/Birdlife Spain, SPEA (Portugal), NABU (Germany), HOS (Greece), VBN (Netherlands), SOF (Sweden), LOD (Lithuania) – along with FACE (Federation of Associations for Hunting and Conservation of the EU), VCF (Vulture Conservation Foundation) and AEWA (African-Eurasian Migratory Waterbird Agreement).