A Balearic shearwater takes off from a choppy sea

The Balearic shearwater is Europe's most threatened species, being found nowhere else in the world. Image © Arnau Soler/Shutterstock

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One in five European birds at risk of extinction, report warns

Over 100 species of European birds are on the road to becoming extinct in the continent, a new report has warned. 

Habitat destruction, pollution and agriculture are among the causes that have seen even common species pushed closer to the edge. 

A third of Europe's birds have declined over the past few decades, with one in five now threatened with extinction. 

The European Red List of Birds found that many of the 500 species living on the continent were creeping ever closer to being wiped out, as humanity's impacts on the environment take their toll. 

After the first red list in 2015, action was taken to improve our knowledge and protection of avian species. However, scientists have warned it may not yet be enough. 

Dr Alex Bond, the Senior Curator in Charge of Birds at the Museum, says, 'My biggest takeaway from this red list is that things aren't improving.  

'Since 2015, we have collectively spent as a society a lot of time, money and resources on trying to improve the conservation status of European birds, and that's not having as great an impact as we had hoped. Part of that is because some interventions take a long time, but also because some of the interventions just aren't adequate. 

'We've now got classic UK species which most folks would recognise, like the eider duck, now classed as Endangered in Europe, while the rook is now Vulnerable. This is pretty shocking.' 

The findings of the surveys were compiled and released by the conservation organisation BirdLife International.

A sociable lapwing in scrubland

Only around 11 adult sociable lapwings are thought to be left in Europe. Image © Rich Lindie/Shutterstock

Flight into danger? 

The European Red List of Birds was first published in 2015, building on two similar assessments carried out in 1994 and 2004.  

As part of the survey, researchers and volunteers in Europe recorded information about the number of birds found from Greenland to Russia. These were then used to estimate populations trends for each species and then classify how vulnerable they are to extinction. 

The red list found that of the 544 bird species in Europe, 71 species are threatened with extinction in the continent, while a further 34 are Near-Threatened. This is broadly equivalent to the previous survey, in which 101 species fell into the two classifications. 

Among the most threatened birds is the sociable lapwing, a wader of which just 11 adults are thought to be left on the continent. While the lapwings are found elsewhere, the Critically Endangered Balearic shearwater is only found in Europe and will be lost forever if it goes extinct. 

The causes behind the declines vary by species, but the impact of people is often the root cause.  

'The group with the greatest number of threatened species are farmland and grassland birds,' Alex says. 'This is largely down to agricultural intensification which can damage their habitat and destroy their food. 

'Marine and wetland birds are next on the list, and a lot of that will come down to land use changes as birds like waders rely on fields and meadows to breed.'  

A kingfisher dives into the water

The kingfisher has moved from Vulnerable to Least Concern. Image © Martine Liu 58/Shutterstock

Changing course 

While many species are declining, there have been some success stories. The red kite, for instance, has become a common sight across the UK and Europe as a result of protections brought in to conserve it. This has seen the species downgraded from the category of Near Threatened to Least Concern. 

Populations of the Azores bullfinch, meanwhile, have stabilised after its range became a protected area and work was undertaken to restore the laurel forest it relies on. It is now classed as Vulnerable instead of Endangered. 

Other species have seen changes to their classification based on new information. The kingfisher is now of Least Concern after previously being Vulnerable as better information on its populations has been gathered. Alex says changes like these reflect the difficulty of studying population size. 

'For all of their visibility, birds are quite hard to count,' he says. 'It can be quite challenging. Every assessment of birds captures the best information we have at the time and we act cautiously with that. 

'There are still some gaps in our knowledge for some species which we don't have good, reliable data. I think we need increased, or at least sustained, cooperation between European countries on this because birds don't stop at borders.  

'It's our shared natural heritage that we're looking at here, and we need to look after it.' 

This is a view shared by those who put the report together, who have called on European governments to work together to protect birds across the continent. 

Claire Rutherford, species conservation officer at BirdLife Europe, says, 'We can improve the plight of Europe's birds. Bird populations in Europe are dropping mainly because they are losing their habitats, and there are solutions to that.  

'Large-scale restoration work alongside the protection of the few natural habitats left in Europe, will not only help birds survive, but will help humanity survive.'