21 May 2018

The Comeback Kids: five birds brought back from the brink

Conservation is working: 25 bird species have been saved from the Critically Endangered category this century alone. Read five of the most inspiring stories of birds that have recovered thanks to the dedication of conservationists and communities.

The Asian Crested Ibis recovered from a population of just 12 birds © Wang LiQiang / Shutterstock
The Asian Crested Ibis recovered from a population of just 12 birds © Wang LiQiang / Shutterstock
By Jessica Law

People often underestimate nature’s power to bounce back. Give it half a chance, and habitats will start to regrow, populations recover. There’s no denying that humans create huge challenges – but with enough support, dedication and resources, we can also reverse them. And the minute we do, nature is there in the wings, waiting to make a comeback.

There are some particularly shining examples in the bird world. Our flagship report, State of the World’s Birds 2018, finds that 25 bird species have been rescued from the Critically Endangered category since 2000. And that’s not counting the ones that would have vanished altogether without the help of conservation projects. We’ve picked just five of the most inspiring examples.


1. Azores Bullfinch: feasting once again


Restoring its native laurel forest provided food for the Azores Bullfinch © putneymark


This adorably rotund finch has a fairytale rags-to-riches story, rising from just 40 pairs to a population 1000-strong. The species depends entirely on the native laurel forest of its Portuguese island home. Unfortunately, vast swathes of these precious forests were being cleared for agriculture, or invaded by non-native plants such as the aggressive Kahili Ginger Hedychium gardnerianum. Despite its plump appearance, the Azores Bullfinch Pyrrhula murina  was starving.

After decades of decline, by 2005 it held the ignominious title of Europe’s most threatened bird. But just in the nick of time, a knight in shining armour arrived in the form of the Portuguese Society for the Study of Birds (SPEA – BirdLife Partner), who headed the restoration of over 300 hectares of native laurel forest. The Azores Bullfinch moved from Critically Endangered to Endangered in 2010, but its comeback didn’t end there. By 2016 it was moved once again to Vulnerable – escaping the Endangered status altogether.


2. Yellow-eared Parrot: the power of the public


The highly popular Parrot Bus was key to the campaign © Francesco Veronesi / Proaves


Once common amidst the cloud forests of Ecuador and Colombia, by the 1990s the Yellow-eared Parrot Ognorhynchus icterotis had disappeared altogether from Ecuador, and scientists feared it might be extinct in the wild. The reason: deforestation of its home tree, the Quindo Wax Palm. For centuries, wax palm fronds had been used to adorn the Palm Sunday celebrations by the Christian community, causing wild stocks to dwindle.


And then, in 1999, a glimmer of hope: 81 birds were discovered in a remote area of the Colombian Andes. Spurred on by this finding, conservation groups launched a large-scale publicity campaign, including television and radio appeals, a music concert and the highly popular touring “Parrot bus”. Backed by popular support, local organisations were able to install nest boxes, plant trees and promote sustainable alternatives to the problem palm. The Yellow-eared Parrot’s population is now 1000-strong and growing.

And just in case you were wondering, its yellow feathers do indeed extend to its ear coverings – so the species’ name is entirely accurate.


3. Black-faced Spoonbill: a safe haven


Protecting this far-ranging migratory bird was a different kind of challenge © Cp9asngf


The singular shape of this bird’s beak is hard to miss. But it’s not just for show – this spectacular spatula helps the bird to find food. Rather like a metal detector, the Black-faced Spoonbill Platalea minor sweeps its beak from side to side in shallow waters until it touches a tasty shrimp or fish. Unfortunately, the intertidal mudflats on which it feeds are being encroached upon by land reclamation and building along the coast.

Unlike the Azores Bullfinch, this isn’t a bird confined to a small set of islands. This bird migrates across the whole of East Asia – so protecting it is a different kind of challenge. That’s why China, North Korea, South Korea, Japan and Chinese Taiwan united in a single action plan for the species, turning many of its key breeding grounds and overwintering sites into protected areas. And it worked. Safe havens have allowed the population to grow from a tenuous 300 to a secure 4,000.


4. Asian Crested Ibis: bird with a bodyguard


Letting Asian Crested Ibis breed safely was the key to its recovery © Wang LiQiang / Shutterstock


Can a species really recover from only 12 birds? This hot pink wader has triumphed against all odds. The Asian Crested Ibis Nipponia nippon used to breed across the Russian Far East, Japan and China – but human activity encroached from all directions. Its forest nesting sites were felled. Agrochemicals poisoned the frogs, fish and invertebrates that it fed on in rice paddies. And hunting made matters even worse. By 1981, a population of only seven birds was found in China, and the last five birds in Japan were taken into captivity.

The many-sided problem required a multi-pronged solution. In the wild, logging, agrochemicals and hunting were prohibited in the bird’s range. Nest sites even got their own personal bodyguard during the breeding season. Emergency captive breeding programmes began in China, and the offspring were quickly released in prime ibis habitats. There now over 500 individuals in the wild, and the species has been successfully re-introduced to Japan, with plans to release it in South Korea.


5. Lear’s Macaw: nobody’s property


Undercover agents infiltrated the wildlife trade to stop the capture of the Lear's Macaw © Joao Quental


This Brazilian bird was known to the rest of the world as a captive pet long before any wild populations were discovered. By the time wild populations were found, it was clear that the unregulated wildlife trade had sent them into freefall: by 1983 there were just 60 Lear’s Macaw Anodorhynchus leari left. Its habit of nesting in large colonies made it all the more simple to capture in swathes. CITES (the wildlife trade convention) stepped in to end the trade, but populations failed to bounce back. With its semi-desert habitat degraded by farming, it was clear the species needed a little more help.

And so, scores of organisations banded together to protect the habitat, educate the local community and make sure anti-hunting laws were strongly enforced. Undercover agents even infiltrated trading networks to stop the practice at its source. The bird’s future now looks as bright as its plumage. The most recent count found 1,294 individuals.


A cause for hope


So what can these stories show us? Well, there isn’t a catch-all solution: every bird is different. But despite this, it’s rarely too late to turn things around. If enough people join together and work towards a common aim, anything is possible. We’ve done it before, and we’ll do it again.

Help other species to make the same journey by supporting our work here.