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Woodland birds in decline

Last modified: 17 July 2008

Spotted flycatcher on perch

Latest results from the BTO/JNCC/RSPB Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) puts woodland birds at the top of the list of declining species.

The BBS - which is the primary source of information about countryside birds, and now shows that wood warbler, spotted flycatcher, pied flycatcher and willow tit have all declined by over half since the start of the survey in 1994.

The bad news

Since 1994 the Breeding Bird Survey has revealed a major decline in the numbers of some woodland birds but those with the most specialist habitat requirements (some of which are also long-distance migrants), have shown the most dramatic declines, notably willow tit (down 77 per cent), spotted flycatcher (down 59 per cent), wood warbler (down 57 per cent) and pied flycatcher (down 54 per cent).

This is not due to loss of habitat, as overall we probably have more woodland than ever, but the tree composition and age structure of our woods have changed. Deer have increased in numbers, browsing away the forest under-story on which the birds depend, and forest management practices are changing the structure of our woodlands.

The good news

It’s not all bad news, and some species are increasing in numbers. Many of the species showing the biggest increases are also expanding across the UK, notably stonechat (up 278 per cent), nuthatch (up 71 per cent) and buzzard (up 56 per cent). Buzzards are spreading from their western strongholds, thanks to a reduction in persecution and the recovery of rabbit populations from the effects of myxomatosis.

'Since 1994 the Breeding Bird Survey has revealed a major decline in the numbers of some woodland birds.'

Stonechats are also spreading back eastwards from the temperate western coastal areas, and nuthatches, previously found only in England and Wales, are increasingly breeding in Scotland.

More often heard than seen, the secretive grasshopper warbler had been lost from many areas by the 1980s, and the species is red-listed due to population declines.

However, BBS results now show that life is looking up for grasshopper warblers, which have increased by 68 per cent since the survey started in 1994, and also increased by 24 per cent between 2006 and 2007.

Nearly 3,000 volunteer birdwatchers took part in the annual Breeding Bird Survey during 2007, and counted over a million individual birds of 220 species throughout the UK.

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