Bird Population on Decline in Britain

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: Brits love their feathered friends. Bird spotting is a popular pastime in Britain. But it's getting harder. A new survey says Britain has been losing birds at the rate of one nesting pair every minute for almost 50 years. In all that's about 44 million fewer birds since 1966. Richard Gregory is a scientist with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and one of the report's authors. Richard Gregory, which birds are suffering the most?

Richard Gregory: It's a variety of birds, in fact, in our countryside and in the sea. It's birds in the farm environment, in woodlands, and some of our sea birds and sea ducks living around the coast have been severely affected over the last, sort of, several decades.

Werman: So what's causing the population loss? You're with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. Are they not being protected?

Gregory: Well, they are being protected and the protection measures in place and the initiatives we and lots of partners are putting in place on the ground are kind of working for some of the species, but it's the overwhelming picture that's a bit bleak really, that despite all this fantastic effort, and good will, and love of birds in the UK, you know, these figures that we've pulled together for the first time give us a startling and shocking story that we're losing the birds and we're just not doing enough in enough places.

Werman: Now, you've worked with the Audubon Society here in the US. How do the two countries compare in terms of where the bird population is headed and what's being done to kind of keep it alive?

Gregory: I think that there some really strong parallels, and the work that Audubon do with the North American Bird Conservation Initiative, NABSI, in the US and in Canada as well, shows some really kind of striking similarities and similar threats, things like climate change worries. In the United States and Europe we know there's a whole group of species that live in the arid lands, of course, the arctic and coastal birds, ocean birds, very, very vulnerable to climatic change.

Werman: Now, your report for the UK is not all grim. Kind of like the US and Canada, some species are prospering, correct?

Gregory: That's right, that's right, and each individual bird has its own story to tell. We have a bird called the Great Spotted Woodpecker, an adaptable, quite intelligent, robust woodpecker that's really taken advantage of people feeding in their gardens and a bit more woodland being grown in the UK, so that species is doing really well. Another species is called the Blackcap, and this is a small warbler. Many of our warblers that migrate to Africa are declining strongly, but the clever Blackcap has changed its migration status over the last few years to winter much closer to Europe, sort of within Europe, and it's benefiting hugely. You can even see them on bird tables in the winter in the UK.

Werman: So Richard, let's end on a grim note. Are there any species, what are the one or two species in the UK that are actually in danger of maybe becoming extinct?

Gregory: Well, there are a couple of sea ducks that we point out in this report. These are birds that are living around the coasts, and one's called the Long-tailed Duck and one's called the Velvet Scoter. You have the equivalent species over in the States as well. These birds were declining around the UK, going from thousands of pairs down to a few hundred. They're really a critical issue now on a global scale.

Werman: Richard, I'm just curious how you got into this whole discipline of bird protection. I mean, were you concerned about this issue years ago? Did you see something on the horizon that alarmed you?

Gregory: Well, I suppose so. I mean, I have an inherent interest in birding from the age of about four years old when I apparently sort of got a pair of binoculars and started to look at birds. So that's a bit odd really, I suppose, isn't it? And I've carried that through in my professional interest in ecology and ornithology and natural history and birds. And I do feel passionately that with this information and the great work being done in the States as well, we've got to do more to try and protect the environment because ultimately, you know, we all depend on it.

Werman: Richard Gregory with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. Thanks very much.

Gregory: Thank you.