Kingfisher Alcedo atthis, female, on branch

Water and birds

The health of bird populations tell us a lot about the condition of our water and wetlands. We look at how different birds rely on water and what we can do to help.

Water and birds

Some species are particularly associated with water. These include kingfishers and dippers, which live alongside rivers and feed in their running waters, lapwings and snipe, which breed on damp grasslands and floodplain meadows.

Other birds such as black-throated divers feed and nest on lakes and lochs. They rely on clean water to support fish for their food.

Without the right amount of water, in the right places and at the right times, these birds would be left high and dry. 

Wetlands as wildlife spectacles

The UK's wetlands also support internationally important numbers of wintering ducks, geese, swans and wading birds, which migrate to spend their winters feeding on our coastlines or on inland lakes and wet meadows.  

Massive flocks of birds gather in the autumn, creating some of our most magnificent wildlife spectacles. Some of our nature reserves, including Snettisham and Titchwell Marsh in Norfolk, and Mersehead on the Solway Coast, are wonderful places to see them.

Farmland birds need water, too

But it is not only traditional wetland bird species that need water to survive. Evidence is growing that many of our vulnerable farmland birds are found in greatest numbers where there is water – whether this is in a ditch, a pond or just a 'squidgy bit' at the edge of a field.

The reason for this is probably very simple – wet places tend to have more of the insect food that birds need to survive. 

We are working with farmers to find the best ways to keep 'wet bits' on farmland, whether in the lush valleys in the north and west, or the arable landscapes of Eastern England.

The health of wetland bird populations

The health of bird populations can tell us a lot about the condition of our water and wetlands.

Whilst in recent years our internationally renowned populations of wintering ducks, geese and swans have held their own, some breeding wetland birds have suffered serious declines. 

The 2002 breeding waders of wet meadows survey (see link) revealed that once-familiar species such as the snipe and lapwing are facing a crisis. Since 1982, 60 per cent of snipe, 40 per cent of lapwings and curlews and 20 per cent of redshanks have disappeared. 

We are taking action to solve this problem through reserves management, advice and support to farmers, and lobbying for better laws and policies.

Boom in bittern numbers offers hope

Let's hope we can improve the status of these species with the same success we had with the bittern. Bitterns reached dangerously low numbers in the 1990s, due to loss of their wet reedbed habitats. Happily, the last few years have seen a steady increase in numbers and by 2009, 82 booming males were recorded in the UK - 33 of which were on RSPB reserves.