Global survey finds 63% of Irish birds are in decline

Expansion and intensification of agriculture putting pressure on 73 per cent of avian species, BirdLife International says

The latest State of the World’s Birds survey has confirmed 63 per cent of Ireland’s bird species are in decline.

The global report paints “the most concerning picture yet of the future of avian species and, by extension, all life on Earth”.

Nearly half of all bird species globally were found to be in decline, with many populations severely depleted. Just 6 per cent are increasing. One in eight bird species globally is currently threatened with extinction. In Ireland, 25 per cent of Irish birds are showing “severe decline” and an additional 37 per cent are showing “moderate decline”.

Published every four years by BirdLife International, of which BirdWatch Ireland (BWI) is a partner, the report summarises what birds tell us about the state of nature, the pressures upon it, the solutions in place and those needed. The report concludes that one of the most important actions required is “to effectively conserve, safeguard and manage the most critical sites for birds and biodiversity”.


Currently, almost half of bird species worldwide are in decline, with just 6 per cent increasing. Global trends match the stark national picture in Ireland, BWI confirmed.

The Birds of Conservation Concern in Ireland assessment published by BWI and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in Northern Ireland in 2021 confirmed 63 per cent of Ireland’s bird species were in serious trouble.

Farmland birds such as the curlew, lapwing, snipe, kestrel and skylark are the fastest-worsening group of bird species with upland birds and lowland wetland birds also faring very badly.

Habitat loss and degradation; pollution in rivers and lakes and rodenticide use are all adding up to make the countryside less and less hospitable for birds. Overfishing, disturbance by people and dogs at breeding sites of seabirds and wintering sites for waterbirds, plastics in our seas and avian flu highlight the myriad threats to birdlife in Ireland, said BWI head of advocacy Oonagh Duggan.

“The pressures and threats on bird species keep mounting and with every additional crisis in our world. Largely, sectoral policies in Ireland continue to take from the land and sea without giving anything back to protect and restore habitats for the wildlife they also support,” she added.

Conservation of habitats and specific measures to address species declines worked effectively, she added. “There are success stories such as the roseate tern conservation work on Rockabill. What is missing is national ambition across the whole of government to protect and restore biodiversity and to fund conservation to the extent that is needed.”

Budget 2023 failed to acknowledge or financially address the biodiversity emergency that the Dáil declared in 2019 and which has been highlighted with vigour by organisations like BWI, Ms Duggan said.

“The 20 per cent increase in funding for the National Parks and Wildlife Service that Minister [of State for Heritage] Malcolm Noonan secured is welcome and brings it up further from past severe cuts but additional funding for active nature conservation is absent. To be clear, this requires a whole-of-government response and not just from one Minister,” she said.

The message of the stark loss of biodiversity was not getting through to the whole of government, Ms Duggan said. “This is deeply worrying, as some bird species may go extinct in the next five to 10 years and habitats may be unrecoverable and that will bring terrible shame to this first-world European country.”

“It is clear that restoring wildlife populations is seen as a nice to have instead of an essential to have. Birds are indicators of the health of our environment because they are so well studied. If we fail to restore nature, it means that we are failing to safeguard our own futures on a healthy planet.”

Globally, logging, invasive species, exploitation of natural resources and climate breakdown are the other main threats after agricultural intensification — 49 per cent of bird species are declining, one in eight are threatened with extinction and at least 187 species are confirmed or suspected to have gone extinct since 1500.

Most of these have been endemic species living on islands, although there is an increase in birds now going extinct on larger land masses, particularly in tropical regions.

In Ethiopia, for example, the conversion of grassland to farmland has caused an 80 per cent decrease in endemic Liben larks since 2007. Just 6 per cent of bird species globally are increasing.

Since 1970, 2.9 billion individual birds (29 per cent of the total) have been destroyed in North America. The picture is just as bleak in other parts of the world — since 1980, 600 million birds (19 per cent) have been destroyed in Europe, with previously abundant species such as the common swift, common snipe and rook among those slipping towards extinction.

Europe’s farmland birds have shown the most significant declines: 57 per cent have disappeared as a result of increased mechanisation, use of chemicals and converting land into crops. In Australia, 43 per cent of abundant seabird species have declined between 2000 and 2016.

Dr Stuart Butchart, chief scientist at BirdLife International, said: “We have to stop these declines and start getting on track for recovery. Our future, as well as the world’s birds, depends on it. If we continue to unravel the fabric of life, we’re going to continue to place our own future at threat.”

The report is made up of a compendium of other studies, and because birds are the best-studied group on the planet, it gives an idea of the state of nature more generally. “Birds are useful for telling us about the state of the planet. What they say is that nature is in poor condition, lots of species are in decline,” Mr Butchart noted.

Birds are cornerstones of healthy ecosystems, so their disappearance is likely to have myriad negative knock-on effects. Hornbills, for example, disperse large seeds in tropical forests; turkey vultures dispose of organic waste, while seabirds help in the cycle of nutrients between sea and land, keeping coral reefs healthy.

The previous State of the World’s Birds report, released in 2018, found 40 per cent of bird species worldwide in decline.

Wildfires feature more prominently in this report than previous editions, having increased and ravaged previously unaffected habitats. The succession of heatwaves, droughts and floods in recent years will lead to widespread species extinctions if they continue, researchers warn, highlighting the importance of addressing the nature and climate crises at the same time.

Growing evidence links the health of bird populations to human health. Covid-19 is a warning of what could happen if we continue to destroy the natural world, with 70 per cent of zoonotic diseases originating in wildlife. A highly pathogenic variant of avian flu — the result of intensive farming — has driven rapid declines in some bird populations this year. More than 300 outbreaks have been reported in UK seabird colonies.

The report comes ahead of the Cop15 meeting in Montreal in December, a once-in-a-decade opportunity to create new legislation to tackle the biodiversity crisis.

Mr Butchart hopes the findings will feed into the final statement from Montreal. “The key action needed now by governments is to make sure a really ambitious and bold global biodiversity framework is adopted. We’ve got to bend this curve, so by 2030 we’re on a mission of being nature positive,” he said.

This means increasing the number and quality of protected areas, conserving remaining habitats and restoring those that have been degraded. Preventing the illegal killing of birds, managing invasive species, reducing fisheries’ bycatch and preventing overexploitation of natural resources will all help.

The report is not all gloom. According to BirdLife, between 21 and 32 bird species would have gone extinct since 1993 without conservation work. It cites the creation of a new seabird haven the size of France in the North Atlantic, estimated to protect five million birds. — Additional reporting: Guardian

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan is Environment and Science Editor and former editor of The Irish Times