23 Nov 2018

6 things you might have missed from the Bird Red List update

The recovery of the Northern Bald Ibis and Pink Pigeon are big news – but what about the other birds in this year’s Red List update? Some you may recognise, others you may not, but their stories can tell us a lot about the state of the natural world. Here are the highlights.

The Rufous Hummingbird may not be common for much longer © Ryan Bushby
The Rufous Hummingbird may not be common for long © Ryan Bushby
By Jessica Law

How can you tell whether a species is thriving or just surviving? How do we know which species are in urgent need of protection? The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, dubbed the “barometer of life”, keeps a record of how close species are to extinction – and BirdLife is responsible for measuring the health of the avian world. Every year, we update the Red List to determine which birds are stable, which are in recovery, and which have slipped further towards extinction. And these changes can tell us a lot about the state of the natural world as a whole. Here are a few important stories that might have flown under the radar in this year’s update.

1. The Common Grackle: common doesn’t mean safe

Common Grackle populations have more than halved in the past 40 years © Tim Sackton

If you live in the US, you’ve probably heard of the Common Grackle Quiscalus quiscula. In fact, these iridescent scavengers may well be part of your day-to-day life. As their name suggests, they’re far from exotic – and this may be one of the reasons the health of their populations has been overlooked until now. But when Partners in Flight published their results in 2016, the findings were shocking: the Common Grackle’s population had plummeted by more than fifty percent between 1970 and 2014. The species has now been classed as Near Threatened: part of a worrying trend affecting familiar and widespread birds worldwide.

How did this decline happen? Unusually, the spread of intensive agriculture and the clearance of woodland might have benefitted this species at first by creating open habitats. Yet its ability to thrive on farmland may be its undoing: thanks to its farmland scavenging, it is often seen as a pest and subjected to control measures, leading to the declines we now see. If we want to prevent further declines, we need to learn to love this misunderstood multi-coloured misfit.

2. The Rapa Fruit-dove is Critically Endangered – but help is at hand

Invasive species removal has been funded for the Rapa Fruit Dove's island © Caroline Blanvillain


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Found only on the tiny island of Rapa Iti in French Polynesia, there are thought to be fewer than 250 adult Rapa Fruit-doves Ptilinopus huttoni in the wild. The small fragments of forest it clings to are threatened by tree felling and overgrazing by goats. The problem is so urgent that this year, the species has been uplisted to Critically Endangered. Luckily, help is at hand. BirdLife’s large-scale habitat restoration project, “Saving Paradise in the Pacific”, is just about to get underway on Rapa Iti, thanks to an urgent project supported by the 2017 Birdfair. BirdLife will work with our French Polynesian Partner SOP Manu to remove feral goats, while local residents will help to remove the invasive (and pervasive) Strawberry Guava plant that is choking out local vegetation.

3. We gained some new species

The Lyre-tailed Hummingbird has been split from the Bahama Woodstar (pictured) © New Jersey Birds

Sometimes, scientific research leads to the discovery of new species, or the realization that birds we previously thought were part of one species are actually a separate species altogether. This year, for example, we adopted the proposal that the Lyre-tailed Hummingbird Nesophlox evelynae, which was thought to be a sub-species of the Bahama Woodstar Calliphlox evelynae, is a separate species. The new hummingbird lives only on Great and Little Inagua in the Bahamas, but is common and the population is thought to be stable, so it is listed as Least Concern.

Cape Verde Storm-petrel is separate from Band-rumped Storm Petrel (pictured) © Richard Crossley

The Cape Verde Storm-petrel Hydrobates jabejabe was also accepted as separate from Band-rumped Storm-petrel Hydrobates castro, based on differences in its appearance and calls. There was some concern because its breeding range is restricted only to the Cape Verde Islands, where invasive species such as cats and rats pose a threat. However, a Birdlife-led survey to find and count breeding birds found large numbers, so fortunately it is also assessed as Least Concern.

4. The White-winged Guan is no longer Critically Endangered

Awareness raising is aiding the White-winged Guan's recovery © Macaulay Library, Cornell Lab of Ornithology

The Northern Bald Ibis Geronticus eremita wasn’t the only species removed from the Red List’s highest threat category this year. Hidden among small patches of wooded slopes and ravines in north-west Peru, the White-winged Guan Penelope albipennis is quietly recovering. This large, turkey-like species once saw worrying population declines due to habitat loss and overhunting. However, awareness campaigns directed at local people have helped to improve its status. Records show that the population has been stable for the past 15 years, and this year it has been classified as Endangered.

5. The Red-headed Woodpecker and Henslow’s Sparrow are in the clear

The Red-headed Woodpecker's habitat is improving © Andy Reago & Chrissy McClaren

The phrase “Least Concern” might sound a little harsh, but in reality, this is how we would wish all life on earth to be categorised. Least Concern means that a species’ population is healthy and stable enough that it is unlikely to face extinction any time soon. Formerly declining populations of Red-headed Woodpecker Melanerpes erythrocephalus and Henslow’s Sparrow Passerculus henslowii, both native to North America, have stabilised thanks to habitat management. Henslow’s Sparrow in particular has benefited from the USA’s Conservation Reserve Program, whereby farmers are paid to remove environmentally sensitive land from cultivation and instead plant species that will improve the health and quality of the habitat.

6. Eastern Whip-poor-will and Rufous Hummingbird: sliding to extinction in plain sight

In folklore, Eastern Whip-poor-will is said to be able to sense a soul departing © Pixabay

Two species that would benefit from an expansion of the Conservation Reserve Program are the Eastern Whip-poor-will Antrostomus vociferus and Rufous Hummingbird Selasphorus rufus. Shockingly, both of these familiar North American birds have been uplisted to Near Threatened this year. The Eastern Whip-poor-will, a highly-camouflaged nightjar, is a particularly intrinsic part of American folklore. Thanks to its eerie song (after which it was named), it has even appeared in the work of American horror authors H.P. Lovecraft and Stephen King. But despite its iconic image, data collected over decades by citizen scientists has revealed that its population fell by over 60% between 1970 and 2014. Dependent on flying insects throughout the year, the species is particularly sensitive to pesticides, intensive agriculture and other factors that reduce insect availability – as well as having much of its habitat destroyed outright.

The Rufous Hummingbird is already being affected by climate change © Ryan Bushby

The Rufous Hummingbird, although it famously feeds on nectar, also relies on insects during the breeding season, so could also be impacted by these factors. What’s more, the species may soon become a victim of climate change: flowers are already blooming as many as two weeks earlier in some locations, meaning many hummingbirds arrive from migration too late to take advantage of this vital food source.


So what can this year’s update tell us? Well, many of the changes fit into a wider – and worrying – pattern. Mainland extinctions are set to outpace island extinctions for the first time, driven by continent-wide problems such as habitat loss and climate change. And although conservation can and does work, projects focusing on a single species may no longer be enough. From now on, we need to take our past successes and scale them up, bringing together NGOs, governments, businesses and local communities the world over to tackle the biggest threats to nature of the modern age.

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