Woodland birds join extinction danger list

Both the woodpecker and the willow tit were widespread 40 years ago, but every year since 1970 their populations have declined so they are now in grave danger

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Two of Britain's most charming woodland birds, widespread until relatively recently, appear to be on the road to extinction.

Populations of the lesser-spotted woodpecker and the willow tit have fallen so far and so fast that their populations are now to be monitored by a special panel of experts charting the UK's rarest breeding birds.

The former, a miniature woodpecker the size of a Mars Bar and brilliantly coloured in black, white and scarlet, dropped in numbers by 77 per cent between 1994 and 2009, while the latter, a subtly coloured songbird in black, white, brown and grey, fell by 76 per cent over the same period.

As it is thought there are now fewer than 1,500 pairs of each in Britain, their populations in future will be monitored by the Rare Birds Breeding Panel, which keeps a check on Britain's least common species.

Both were widespread 40 years ago, but in every year since 1970, the British population of the willow tit has declined by more than 6 per cent, and that of the lesser-spotted woodpecker has declined by 3 per cent.

Despite a growing body of research, nobody is sure of the reasons behind their declines, which seem to be unstoppable. In fact, they appear to be paralleling those of the two birds which have gone extinct in Britain since the Second World War, the wryneck and the red-backed shrike, said Mark Eaton, in charge of monitoring for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.

A small woodpecker, the wryneck went extinct in England in 1974, although a few bred in Scotland till 2003; the red-backed shrike ceased regular breeding in 1989 (a few pairs of both have bred occasionally since then).

"Although scientists would hesitate to predict extinctions, the declines of the lesser-spotted woodpecker and the willow tit appear to be mirroring the declines of the earlier species," Dr Eaton said. "If we had the data going back and we could compare the graphs of their declines, I expect they would look pretty similar."

He added: "It is tragic to think that within many people's memories these woodland birds were so widespread and are now so rare. Since the 1970s, we've lost nine out of 10 pairs of willow tit, and three out of four pairs of lesser-spotted woodpecker. In many areas they have disappeared."

The two species share one major characteristic – they excavate nest holes in trees. But that appeared to be a coincidence, and not a link to their decline, said Elisabeth Charman, the RSPB's woodland birds specialist.

The willow tit's fall in numbers appears to be linked to loss of suitable wet scrub habitat, Dr Charman said, while that of the lesser-spotted woodpecker appears to be linked to poor breeding success, although the reason for that was not yet known. Lesser-spotted woodpeckers also needed extensive wooded landscapes to flourish, and it was possible that changes in woodland management were also a factor in their decline, she said.

Another factor may be that their relative, the great spotted woodpecker, has conversely had an enormous population increase over the same period and is known to kill and eat the chicks of the smaller species. But scientists do not think predation is driving the decline in numbers, Dr Charman said.

Will woodpecker follow wryneck into oblivion?

Lesser spotted woodpecker Dendrocopos minor

Handsome miniature woodpecker which was once widespread across the country in woods, orchards, parkland and gardens, although always elusive. Now very hard to see anywhere.

Willow tit Parus montanus/Poecile montanus

A bird which favours damp woods with decaying trees in which it can excavate a nest hole. Very similar to the marsh tit (once thought to be the same bird).

Red-backed shrike Lanius collurio

Exquisite tiny predator which catches insects and other prey and impales them on thorn bushes in natural "larders". Rapid decline to virtual extinction in the 1980s.

Wryneck Jynx torquilla

A small grey-brown woodpecker which was said to be able to twist its head almost right round. Long decline after the war to disappearance in the 1970s.

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