Urgent action needed to save migratory birds

Scientists seek to halt rapid decline in turtle doves, nightingales, cuckoos and warblers

Michael McCarthy
Monday 21 November 2011 01:00

Concerted action is needed to save the long-distance migratory birds of Britain and Europe, conservationists are warning today.

Populations of well-loved species such as the turtle dove, nightingale, cuckoo and wood warbler, which come to breed in the UK and the Continent every spring, are rapidly declining.

The migrants may be running into trouble on their British and European breeding grounds, or on their wintering grounds in Africa, or on the arduous 3,000-mile-plus journeys they make twice a year between both – nobody really knows. Yet there is little doubt populations are shrinking at an alarming rate, and only an international effort can address their plight, according to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and BirdLife International, the Cambridge-based international partnership of bird conservation groups.

This effort should begin at the conference of Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS) being held this week in Bergen, Norway.

Dr Danaë Sheehan, an RSPB scientist who is an expert on the declining migrants, will be speaking for them at the meeting. "Migrant birds connect Europe and Africa, crossing our borders, cultures and lives," she said.

"Millions of birds make this incredible long-distance journey twice each year, but the numbers spanning the two continents are reducing rapidly. With dramatic land use change in both Europe and Africa, and hazards on migration, such as illegal killing in the Mediterranean, these birds have enormous struggles ahead. Without international cooperation, we're concerned these species will continue their downward path."

The situation across Europe for some birds has become so severe that the RSPB and BirdLife are urging that turtle doves, warblers and flycatchers should be the focus of a coordinated international conservation plan.

Their representatives will call on parties at Bergen to support a resolution for action, submitted by Ghana, and backed by other African nations.

It urges the development of an action plan for the conservation of African-Eurasian migrant landbirds and their habitats throughout the flyway connecting Europe and Africa.

In Britain, between 1995 and 2009, turtle doves declined by 74 per cent, wood warblers by 63 per cent, nightingales by 60 per cent and cuckoos by 48 per cent.

Going, going... our migratory visitors

Turtle dove (Streptopelia turtur)

This beautiful pigeon with a distinctive purring voice is now gone from much of the UK.

Reasons for decline

Perhaps overhunting on its migratory journeys, especially in France and around the Mediterranean.


(Luscinia megarhynchos)

Celebrated night-time singer, now confined to the south-east corner of the UK.

Reasons for decline

Deer eating the bird's woodland undergrowth habitat in Britain have played a part.

Wood warbler

(Phylloscopus sibilatrix)

Small, exquisite green, yellow and white songbird, now confined to the west.

Reasons for decline

Not known, but not obviously in Britain.


(Cuculus canorus)

Famous for its two-note call, and for laying its eggs in other birds' nests.

Reasons for decline

Perhaps a decline in the bird's main food, hairy moth caterpillars.

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