Now, the sound of spring is at risk

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

The cuckoo joins the Red List of Britain's most endangered species as migrating birds vanish from our shores

A A A

The cuckoo, the bird whose two-note call has long been one of the iconic sounds of spring, has been added to the Red List of Britain's most threatened species.

Once familiar everywhere in the countryside, the cuckoo has declined by 60 per cent in the last forty years, and by 40 per cent just since 1994, and has now vanished from many parts of Britain, especially in the south.

It is one of a suite of birds which migrate to Britain from wintering grounds in central Africa south of the Sahara desert, all of which are showing sharp falls in numbers. Some of these, such as the turtle dove and the spotted flycatcher, are already on the Red List; now four more trans-Saharan migrants, the wood warbler, the yellow wagtail, the tree pipit and the golden oriole, join the cuckoo on the list for the first time.

The Red List represents the most threatened category of the Birds of Conservation Concern assessment, which is produced every few years by a partnership of Britain's bird protection groups and the statutory conservation agencies. The new assessment, Birds of Conservation Concern 3, is the first revision since 2002 of the Red, Amber and Green Lists into which Britain's 246 regularly-occurring bird species are divided, according to the perceived threats to their conservation status. Birds are generally put on the Red List if they have experienced at least a halving of their historic populations. Alarmingly, red-listed species, now 52, account for more than one in five (21 per cent) of all the total, and represent a far higher proportion than compared to the last assessment, when 40 species (16 per cent) were red listed.

Besides the cuckoo and its fellow summer visitors, the 18 species red-listed for the first time such familiar birds as the lapwing and the herring gull, uncommon woodland species such as the hawfinch and the lesser redpoll, and two Scandinavian thrushes which visit Britain commonly in winter but breed in small numbers in Scotland, the fieldfare and the redwing.

Also newly on the list are a number of seabirds and waders, including the arctic skua, the Balearic shearwater, Temminck's stint, the ruff and the whimbrel, and two winter visitors whose numbers have dropped sharply, the dunlin, a small wader, and the scaup, an Arctic-breeding duck. But the most eye-catching addition is that of the cuckoo – famous for laying it eggs in other birds' nests as well as for its call – and the other summer visitors.

"The dramatic decline of the cuckoo is extremely worrying," said RSPB conservation spokesman Grahame Madge. "For millennia, this bird has been the harbinger of spring, but now its population crash is proclaiming that it and many other summer visitors are in deep trouble.

"The cuckoo is one of our most widespread birds, occurring in almost every open habitat from the Cornish valleys to the Scottish Highlands, so it is puzzling why such an adaptable bird should be declining so rapidly.

"Our scientists will be looking for answers to this problem. But to research this bird we will have to look at all aspects of its behaviour and at both ends of its trans-Saharan migration. Although the cuckoo is much a part of an English summer as village cricket or a cream tea, it really is an African bird that comes here to lay its eggs, so we'll also have to research the cuckoo on the Kenya savannahs as well as the orchards of Kent."

The Red List of British birds represents a parallel but different assessment from the global red lists produced by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which feature species threatened with world extinction. The Birds of Conservation Concern Assessment deals with birds in a purely British context.

It is a produced by a partnership of the RSPB with the British Trust for Ornithology, the Countryside Council for Wales, the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust, the Joint Nature Conservation Committee, Natural England, the Northern Ireland Environment Agency, Scottish Natural Heritage, and the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust.

The 2009 assessment does contain some good news. Six species (stone-curlew, woodlark, quail, Scottish crossbill, bullfinch and reed bunting) have been removed from the 2002 Red List, largely because of a recovery in their numbers or range, or a better understanding of their populations. These species are now placed on the Amber List.

Red List: Birds in danger

Fieldfare

Large, colourful thrushes, they stand very upright. They are very social birds, spending the winter in flocks of anything from a dozen or two to several hundred.

Golden oriole

A secretive bird which keeps to the high tree canopy, it can be heard, most often at dawn, giving its distinctive fluting whistle. The male has an unmistakable bright yellow body with black wings.

Lapwing

Also known as the peewit in imitation of its display calls. This familiar farmland bird has suffered significant declines in the last 25 years.

Scaup

A diving duck with a resemblance to tufted duck. Males have black heads, shoulder and breast, grey back and a black tail. Females are brown, with characteristic white patches around the base of the bill.

Wood warbler

The attractive but unobtrusive wood warbler is the largest Phylloscopus warbler in Europe. It has bright yellow upper parts, throat and upper chest and white under parts.

Yellow wagtail

A yellow and green bird, with a medium-length tail, and slender black legs. It spends much time walking or running on the ground.

Suggested Topics
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Jemma Gent: Year End Accountant

£250-£300 Day Rate: Jemma Gent: Are you a qualified accountant with strong exp...

Jemma Gent: Management Accountant

£230 - £260 Day Rate: Jemma Gent: Do you want to stamp your footprint in histo...

Beverley James: Accounts Payable

£22,000 - £23,000: Beverley James: Are you looking for the opportunity to work...

Beverley James: Accounts Assistant

£30,000: Beverley James: A fantastic opportunity has arisen for a person looki...

Day In a Page

HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

Time to play God

Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

MacGyver returns, but with a difference

Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

Tunnel renaissance

Why cities are hiding roads underground
'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

Boys to men

The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

Crufts 2015

Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
10 best projectors

How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

Monaco: the making of Wenger

Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

Homage or plagiarism?

'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower