A smew duck swimming in the water

What is the Red List for UK birds?

An increasing number of our birds are in real trouble, with more than ever being put on the UK Birds of Conservation Concern Red List because they are in critical decline. But what does this actually mean? Here's all you need to know.

So what is the Red List?

The Red List is a list of birds in the UK, Channel Islands and the Isle of Man in most urgent need of our help. It includes some of our rarest birds such as hen harriers and capercaillie, but also familiar birds like house sparrows and starlings, which have suffered huge declines.

 

The first UK Birds of Conservation Concern (BoCC) report was published in 1996. Roughly every six years, experts from different nature and conservation organisations, including the RSPB get together to update the report. Each type of bird is assessed and put on the Green List, Amber List or Red List depending on the level of concern.

How are the lists compiled?

We work with other organisations to create the lists but it would not be impossible without the thousands of volunteers who count birds, do surveys and send their findings to us. These brilliant volunteers give us an amazing insight into the health of our bird populations. Their data is then evaluated and assessed by experts who compare it with other sources, such as previous BoCC reports and similar reports created in Europe.

Adult swift poking its head out of a specially created Swift nesting brick on the side of a new build house, Fulbourn, Cambridgeshire

What does the latest report say?

The 2021 report (BoCC 5) is a sobering read. More birds than ever before are on the Red List. It is now 70 species long – more than double the size it was in the first report in 1996.  


Summer visitors seem to be in real trouble, with swifts and house martins joining other migrants such as the cuckoo, nightingale, spotted flycatcher and others on the Red List. Other visitors from Sub -Saharan Africa including the Sedge warbler and wheatear have moved from Green to Amber. 

 

Other groups of birds are declining too

Greenfinch, ptarmigan and Montagu’s harrier were moved to the Red List, the first two species jumping straight from Green, owing to large declines in numbers. 

 


Previous BoCC reports have highlighted the widespread decline of farmland and upland birds. The latest report found no overall improvement, with more of these birds being added to the Red List.  There is also growing concern for some of our wintering waterbirds. Bewick's swan, goldeneye, smew and dunlin have joined the Red List, while the red-breasted merganser moves from Green to Amber.  

 


Nine of the UK's birds are now classed as threatened with global extinction, with the kittiwake and Leach's storm-petrel  joining seven others including the puffin.

Read a summary of the latest report here.
 

Is it all bad news?

No, the list also allows us to see how dedicated conservation efforts can make a real difference. Previous reports have showcased conservation success stories, such as the recovery, or partial recovery, of species such as bittern, stone-curlew, osprey and red kite. In the latest report, the white-tailed eagle has moved from the Red to the Amber List.   
Andrew Stanbury, one of the RSPB's Conservation Scientists, said: “We're really pleased that, thanks to extensive conservation action, the white-tailed eagle has moved from the Red to the Amber list. “Thanks to our supporters, and partners from other organisations, we have been able to demonstrate that we can turn things around if we have resources and support. It’s not a one-way journey – we can bring them back.” 

Tell me more about why birds are put on the Red List

Birds can be put on the Red List for several different reasons. Puffins for example are on because of a decline worldwide, while swifts, house martins and Montagu’s Harrier were added because of severe declines in breeding populations here in the UK.

 

Here is the list of reasons why a bird can be added: 

  • They are threatened with global extinction 
  • They have undergone a severe historical population decline in UK since 1800 
  • Breeding numbers in the UK have fallen by at least half in the last 25 years, or longer 
  • Their breeding range in the UK has had a severe contraction of at least 50% in the last 25 years or longer 

With more species on the Red list than ever before, can you help reverse the declines by donating what you can today?

The Amber List

The Amber list is used to highlight birds whose conservation status is of moderate concern. In the latest report, the Amber list increased from 96 to 103 species. This is because they either showed an improvement in status and moved off the Red list, or showed a deterioration in numbers, moving from Green to Amber. For example, song thrushes, pied flycatcher and redwings moved from the Red List to the Amber List, because they had shown small recent increases in the numbers breeding in the UK. Red grouse, mute swan and kingfisher also moved from Amber to Green.  


Birds which have moved the other way include other insect eating summer migrants, such as common whitethroats and sedge warblers who have suffered moderate declines. 

 

Here’s the full list of reasons why birds could be on the Amber List:    

  • They are classed as threatened with extinction from Europe
  • There has been a moderate (25-50%) decline in breeding in the UK during the last 25 years or longer
  • Their UK breeding range has contracted between 25% and 50% over last 25 years or longer.
  • There has been a moderate (25-50%) decline in the non-breeding population in the UK during the last 25 years or longer
  • There was a severe decline in their numbers during 1800–1995, but they are now recovering - their population size has more than doubled over last 25 years
  • They are a rare breeder – only 1 to 300 breeding pairs in UK
  • They are rare non-breeders - less than 900 individuals
  • They only live in a few localised places – the definition is that more than half of the UK breeding or non-breeding population lives in 10 or fewer sites
  • Their UK population is internationally important - at least 20% of the European breeding or non-breeding population is in UK 

The Green List

These are the birds which are not showing moderate or severe declines and do not fit into any of the categories above. This sounds relatively positive, but big changes can happen quickly. In the latest report, birds such as the greenfinch and ptarmigan moved straight from the Green to the Red List because of large declines in their numbers.

Are there any other categories?

BoCC also keep a list of the species which have previously bred in the UK and don’t any longer. This can be for numerous reasons, but in some cases, it is a stark reminder that we are losing species of birds. The latest report moved the golden oriole from the Red List to this list because it has failed to breed here since 2009. Other birds on it include the serin and once widespread wryneck. 

What does the RSPB do with this information?

The Red list is a vital tool for us as it helps us monitor the way our bird populations are changing. It also helps focus our conservation efforts on the birds which most urgently need us to take action. Our money and resources are limited, so by using the list we can prioritise what actions we take, and for which type of bird.


But with a growing Red List, we sadly don’t have the resources to prioritise action for all 70 species. In some cases, we just have to keep a watch on a species until we have more resource to take action.


The list also helps to create a more coherent response when working with our many partners in the UK and around the world. It is only by working with them that we can improve the fortunes of birds and other wildlife.

What can I do to help the birds on the Red List?

A woman and child crouched next to a wheelbarrow, gardening together

Welcome birds to your outdoor space

Some of the birds on the Red List are those which we see quite regularly around our homes and countryside, such as starlings, house sparrows, house martins and swifts. Anyone with an outside space can help these birds by putting up nest boxes, feeders or planting plants to attract insects which the birds can eat.

 

Our Nature on Your Doorstep pages have even more ideas to help you make your outdoor space more nature friendly.

 

With swifts and house martins in real trouble, you can help by putting up nest boxes. Here’s our guide for swift boxes and here’s how to attract house martins.

 

If you already feed the birds, it’s important to keep the feeding stations, bird baths and bird tables as clean as possible. This prevents the spread of diseases among birds, such as trichomonosis which has particularly affected greenfinch.
Here’s a handy guide.

Swifts over rooftops

Help monitor our birds

Another way to help is by getting involved in data gathering with monitoring schemes, such as those run by the BTO in partnership with the RSPB. 


You could help our swifts by logging where you see them nesting on Swift Mapper, a website and app to help us monitor breeding hotspots. Find out more here.


Another simple way is taking part in our Big Garden Bird Watch – find out about the latest results and how to get involved in next year’s event here.

A close up image of a puffin facing the camera

Please donate to help our Red List birds

Your donations really do make a difference, giving us the vital funds to help reverse the decline of the birds on the Red List.